March 19, 2017 11:33:23 PM
STARKVILLE -- Vic Schaefer wanted to set the tone Sunday.
After all, this wasn't just another game. This was the last time seniors Ketara Chapel, Dominique Dillingham, Chinwe Okorie, and Breanna Richardson were going to play in Humphrey Coliseum. That's why Schaefer tried to find the right message to give to his players prior to the second-seeded Mississippi State women's basketball team's game against seventh-seeded DePaul in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
"I talked to our kids today in pregame about who we are and what we're known for," Schaefer said. "We talked about toughness, resilience, competitive spirit, not getting out-toughed, not getting outhustled. I thought we really embraced that coming out."
Blair Schaefer tied for game-high scoring honors with 18 points, while Jazzmun Holmes added a career-high 14 points to lead MSU to a 92-71 victory before a crowd of 6,035 at the Hump.
The win helped MSU (31-4) advance to the Sweet 16 for the second-consecutive year, and third overall.
Richardson, Okorie, and Victoria Vivians added 12 points, while Dominique Dillingham had 10 to reach 1,000 for her career.
"I am really humbled and so proud of my kids today," Schaefer said. "They just played their hearts out. I am proud of their energy and effort. I thought their focus was good. I am telling you DePaul is really good, really good. They are so skilled, well coached. Like I told you, I got up in the middle of their ballgame Friday and I probably haven't slept two hours since then just trying to think about how we're going to deal with them a little bit."
From Dillingham to Holmes to Schaefer, MSU had an answer everywhere it turned. Like he always does, Schaefer credited a higher power and talked about how that higher power worked through his players.
"I serve an unbelievable Lord that just instilled in these kids an unbelievable energy and effort today," Schaefer said. "I don't think there is any doubt from anybody in the stands that you could see Him in them and how they played, and all across the country. They really could see what this program and these kids are all about. I couldn't be more proud as the coach of Mississippi State today."
Clearing things up
DePaul coach Doug Bruno took a minute before his opening comments to set the record straight.
ESPN2 asked Bruno to wear a headset at the beginning of the second quarter with the game tied at 17. Vivians started the sequence by missing a layup. An offensive rebound by Okorie, a miss by Okorie, an offensive rebound by Richardson, a miss by Richardson, an offensive rebound by Okorie, a miss by Okorie, an offensive rebound by Dillingham, a missed 3-pointer by Vivians, and an offensive rebound by Richardson followed before Vivians hit two free throws.
Bruno, who was standing by the scorer's table and looking to his left to the action, said he said while on the microphone, "Get the freaking ball. Get the freaking ball." He wanted to set the record straight because someone heard his second "freaking" and thought he used another word. But Bruno erased any doubts by saying he doesn't use that "other word" and that he didn't use it in that instance.
"You're smart enough to know what freaking is a substitute word for," Bruno said. "I use freaking all of the time. ... To even have to clear it is up is pretty interesting, but it is important that I clear it up because I am not going to go to some kind of NCAA purgatory, or hell. I don't know if it is OK to say that because I didn't say the word that people are thinking I said. If they don't want me to get excited when my team gives up three freaking rebounds, then don't put the microphone on me."
Another Senior Day
Playing a final game in Humphrey Coliseum gave MSU another chance to send its seniors out in style.
Last month, MSU had a game to forget in an 82-64 loss to Tennessee. Against DePaul, MSU shot 49.2 percent (31-for-63) from the field and outrebounded DePaul 48-26 in one of its most complete efforts of the season.
"It was definitely a lot better Senior Day today than it was against Tennessee," Dillingham said. "It is a bittersweet feeling knowing it is the last time I will play in the Hump, but it is a great feeling to know how much we accomplished in the four years we were here. I just love all of the fans, and I just want to thank them for everything and for being here."
Richardson, who added seven rebounds, said the Bulldogs "made up for our Senior Night."
Okorie agreed when she said the memory of the game against Tennessee gave MSU the "back bone to snatch this game away."
Schaefer might have been the happiest of all when he hugged Dillingham and Richardson when they left the game in the final minute.
"I have so much pride in my kids and our program, and I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to our fan base," Schaefer said. "They have been so loyal and good to us, and I just felt awful after that game. It was just a train wreck that day. There were 10,500 in the building, and probably 10,500 were boo-hooing with these four seniors. They're going to go down as the winningest all-time class in the history of the program. They're going to go down as four of the best players to ever play here. I hated it for them that they had to go out that way.
"I couldn't be more happy today knowing they went out the way they did."
The crowd of 6,035 for the game drew rave reviews from all sides.
"I thought it was phenomenal," DePaul senior point guard Jessica January said. "Even though all of the fans are not there cheering for us, it's so fun to play in that sort of environment. I think they did a really good job getting fans there to watch women's basketball."
Bruno shared in the praise for the crowd and the atmosphere MSU has created for the sport. The Bulldogs entered the weekend seventh in the nation in attendance (6,793).
Last season, MSU had a crowd of 7,094 for its 74-72 victory against Michigan State in the second round of the NCAA tournament at Humphrey Coliseum.
"I love watching the game of women's basketball grow inch by inch, foot by foot, yard by yard," Bruno said. "I just love seeing it grow. There is a reason we supported playing on home courts, even though we went away from it for eight, nine, 10 years. It is not fun to be the underdog, but, at the same time, selling tickets is important, and the environment is important. I think Mississippi State did a great job of having a great environment."
High praise for Holmes
Bruno knew it was going to be tough handling a tandem of point guards like Morgan William and Jazzmun Holmes.
In fact, Bruno knew Holmes had 91 assists entering the game and that she likely would see plenty of minutes. Holmes added to that total with six more in a season-high 25 minutes.
"Holmes is a really good player," Bruno said. "Holmes really is a good distributor and a really good general."
Schaefer echoed that sentiment.
"She played with a presence today," Schaefer said. "She has presence, she wanted to be in the moment, and she plays the most important position on our team."
Next step for MSU
Bruno praised the Bulldogs' depth and size, but he cautioned on looking ahead too far because there is a talented player and a talented team that could be next up for MSU.
Bruno addressed that issue when he was asked about the MSU's chances if it was to go up against Baylor in an Elite Eight game in Oklahoma City.
"Kelsey Plum, Kelsey Plum, Kelsey Plum, Kelsey Plum," Bruno said, referring to Washington's standout guard, who passed Jackie Stiles this season to become the all-time leading scorer in the history of women's college basketball. "One in a row, one in a row, one in a row. Kelsey Plum."
Third-seeded Washington will take on sixth-seeded Oklahoma tonight in Seattle for a chance to advance to the Sweet 16 on Friday in Oklahoma City.
Bruno then discussed the similarities he sees between Baylor and MSU. Baylor beat DePaul 104-72 on Nov. 26 in Estero, Florida. He said the health of senior guard Alexis Jones, who had five points in 12 minutes Saturday in a 109-30 victory against Texas Southern in the first round, will be a key ingredient to a possible Elite Eight game.
"It's going to be a good matchup," Bruno said. "I know they're going to be able to go toe to toe with Baylor. They're going to give Baylor a great fight, but it's going to be a tough ballgame. I am not saying Baylor is better. I am not saying Mississippi State is better. They're both really, really good ballclubs."
Bruno said Kalani Brown, Baylor's 6-foot-7 center is a difference-maker. He said the Bears have multiple post players with size to back up Brown in addition to senior forward Nina Davis who can carry a team.
"It could conceivably be a great matchup," Bruno said. "It really could be. We have to see what happens."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.