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Slimantics: MSU women show toughness needed to be Sweet

 

Slim Smith

 

 

STARKVILLE 

 

Roughly 15 minutes after Mississippi State point guard Morgan William dribbled away the final frantic seconds and heaved the ball into the air as a roaring crowd of 7,094 at Humphrey Coliseum erupted in celebration of a 74-72 victory against Michigan State, Spartans' coach Suzy Merchant sat before her post-game press conference with a glum trio of players. 

 

As is the protocol, the losing coach opened with a few general comments before the players were asked questions. 

 

This is nothing new to Merchant, who is her 21st season as a coach. Yet, the words didn't come easily.  

 

She paused, leaned into the microphone and spoke softly, almost as if she was talking to herself: "Ugh," she sighed. "Tough moments, right?" 

 

Merchant and her players went through the key sequences and broke down the events that led to the gut-wrenching outcome. 

 

Later, MSU coach Vic Schaefer and his players gave their version of what happened. 

 

For the second time in school history, MSU has advanced to the Sweet 16, picking up its school-record 28th win along the way. Next stop, Bridgeport, Connecticut, for a likely date with three-time reigning NCAA champion Connecticut. 

 

Yet for all of the words the coaches and players from both teams used to describe Sunday's game, the two words uttered by Merchant at the beginning on her press conference may have described it best: 

 

Tough moments. 

 

The outcome of basketball games often are determined by skill, strategy, maybe even a critical call by official or a random turn of fortune. 

 

But this game wasn't one of those.  

 

This was a game of grit, resiliency, poise -- qualities that, taken together, can be summed up in that single word: Toughness. 

 

There were long stretches when both teams appeared, for all the world, not only down, but out. 

 

With 5 minutes, 55 seconds left in the third quarter, Michigan State was reeling. The Bulldogs have pushed a 40-34 halftime lead to 13 points The crowd in Humphrey Coliseum was going crazy and the Spartans seemed all but beat in the most difficult atmosphere imaginable. 

 

"I've been doing this for 21 years," Merchant said. "I've never been in a place that loud. It may have been 7,000, but it sounded like 70,000. I'm proud of my team." 

 

As well, she should be. 

 

The Spartans weren't finished, not by a long shot. They rattled of the next 20 points, turning a 13-point deficit into a 58-51 lead with 7:44 remaining. 

 

Now it was the Bulldogs turn to flounder, fade and fold. 

 

Over the nine-minute plus scoring drought, Schaefer debated about calling a timeout to settle his players. Ultimately, he decided to let his players "play through it." 

 

"I felt like if we could just ever score, we'd be OK, we would get going again," Schaefer said. 

 

Sophomore guard Victoria Vivians, the Bulldogs' remorseless shooter, finally ended the run with two free throws, followed by a 3-pointer.  

 

But it was Breanna Richardson whose contributions proved decisive in the scramble to the finish. Richardson scored eight points in the final five minutes, including a cold-blooded 3-pointer with 34 seconds remaining that put the Bulldogs up for good at 72-69. 

 

When it was over, Schaefer marveled at the play of both teams. 

 

"What a heck of a basketball game," he said. "They are well-coached and resilient. I say all that, and our kids were just a little bit more." 

 

It was that kind of game. 

 

Tough. 

 

 

 

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is ssmith@cdispatch.com.

 

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is ssmith@cdispatch.com.

 

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