March 28, 2016 10:16:40 PM
What a ride.
The Mississippi State women's basketball team arrived back in Starkville on Saturday with the carnage of a 98-38 loss to three-time reigning national champion Connecticut fresh on its mind.
The appearance in the Sweet 16 in Bridgeport gave the Bulldogs a chance to broaden their horizons. They had a chance to meet the Horde, the media contingent that follows the UConn women's team, which is arguably the biggest in the nation. They also had a chance to play on one of the game's biggest stages against its most powerful opponent.
The results were eye opening.
MSU deserved to be there. It took care of business -- much like it had in its first 26 victories -- in dispatching Chattanooga and Michigan State in the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament in Starkville. The first chance to play host to the first two rounds gave the Bulldogs an advantage they gladly parlayed into the program's second trip to the Sweet 16 and a single-season record for victories.
The timing also was right for MSU to play UConn in the Sweet 16. After growing from 13 to 22 to 27 to 28 victories, the Bulldogs needed to see the Huskies for the first time to judge how far they have come and how far they have to go.
Two victories against Tennessee -- the first in program history -- erased the aura of invincibility around the Lady Volunteers. A close game against Southeastern Conference regular-season and tournament champion South Carolina in Starkville showed MSU it can compete with the league's new top dog.
Still, there is work to be done. The positive is the game against Michigan State solidified MSU's status as an up-and-coming program. In addition to drawing a raucous crowd of 7,094, the Bulldogs displayed their trademark toughness and resolve after squandering a 13-point lead and battling back from two seven-point deficits. The Spartans were quick. The Bulldogs were tougher.
That wasn't the case against UConn.
But don't let that overshadow another great season. Instead, MSU should use the experience to focus on what it has to do to close the gap between it and the nation's best teams. Offensive execution is at the top of that list. Coach Vic Schaefer knows his team was limited this season. With Victoria Vivians (17.1 points per game) the only player to average in double figures, the Bulldogs lacked a consistent second and third option. As a result, Vivians took double the number of shots than all of her teammates. As a freshman, she took double the number of shots than all of her teammates except Breanna Richardson.
The only way that is a recipe for helping a Sweet 16 team take the next step is if Vivians improves her efficiency on offense -- by a large margin. This season, her field goal shooting percentage improved from 36.8 percent to 38.2 percent. The number of 3-pointers she attempted compared to last season increased by 45 and the number of free throws she took decreased by 29.
That's not to stay Vivians didn't take a step forward. The 6-foot-1 guard showed a greater willingness to attack the basket. Unfortunately, she often didn't absorb contact and get all of the way to the rim and attempted body-contorting moves in the lane to avoid defenders. She also remained a player who largely attacked defenses with her right hand.
Make no mistake, Vivians isn't to blame for the Bulldogs' final shooting mark of 39.7 percent from the field, which was lower (39.8) than last season.
That has to change.
If you don't agree, consider this comment from UConn coach Geno Auriemma, "The best defender can't keep a great offensive player down. As I told you guys a hundred times, I'm a great fan of baseball. You throw the right pitch at the right time in the perfect spot and the guy hits a three-run homer. So what are you going to do?
"So great offensive players can overcome great defense. Not always, not always, but there's a defense for everything, obviously. But somehow or another, great offensive players figure out how to play against great defenses."
If need more proof, Hartford Courant columnist Jeff Jacobs talked to ESPN basketball analyst Doris Burke on Saturday and asked her who remained to challenge UConn. Losses by No. 1 seeds South Carolina and Notre Dame and No. 3 seeds Kentucky and Ohio State on Friday thinned the field and left Burke with a clear opinion.
"The most shocking one for me was South Carolina," Burke told Jacobs. "Listen, you're a No. 1 seed and two times in the last three years you get beat by a four seed. You cannot win solely on the defensive end of the floor. This is not just a this-year problem. It's a multi-season problem of an inability to make enough shots to win."
MSU lost at least three games where a few more made shots would have resulted in victories. The Bulldogs also saw Morgan William (35.4 percent to 32.1), Dominique Dillingham (35.1 to 36.8), and Richardson (40.5 the last two seasons) decline or basically stay the same in terms of shooting percentage.
One bright spot came at center, where junior Chinwe Okorie improved from 42.6-percent shooting to 52.6 and freshman Teaira McCowan shot 49.5 percent from the field. But both players will tell you they missed too many shots at the basket. They also would agree they have to refine their footwork and their post moves to come up with counters to strong player-to-player defense and double- and triple-teams.
The Bulldogs need to seize their opportunity. Richardson, Ketara Chapel, Blair Schaefer, Jazzmun Holmes, Kayla Nevitt, LaKaris Salter, and Jazmine Spears showed flashes of potential, but no one emerged as a consistent threat. If the work needs to be done in practice, those players need to look themselves in the mirror and determine if they want to be a difference-maker or if they merely want to be someone who is along for the ride.
Next season, Holmes will be the only player in that group not a senior or a junior, which means the Bulldogs won't be able to use youth or inexperience as a crutch. They have played with the best in the SEC and they have seen the best the sport has to offer, so an even bigger bull's eye will be on their back.
The confidence is there. Despite what the New York Times would lead you to believe, Vivians and the Bulldogs aren't boastful. They believe in coach Schaefer and his system. That's why the program has made such a significant jump in four seasons.
Coaches always say getting to the top of the mountain is hard, but staying there is harder. The Bulldogs aren't to the summit, but they are close. They figure to be included in a mix of teams that should compete for the 2017 national title. MSU can take the next step if it learns from its last game and it re-dedicates itself to getting better.
The loss to UConn shouldn't be something that damages the team's psyche. The Bulldogs accomplished too much and too many teams have suffered a similar fate in their first meeting with the Huskies. That's why the loss has to be the first step toward another record-breaking season in 2016-17. If the Bulldogs accept that challenge, there's no reason sweet can't turn into elite -- or something even better.
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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