Mississippi State guard Victoria Vivians (35) poses for a photo with fans after a victory over Texas A&M at the Southeastern Conference tournament in Nashville, Tennessee. Photo by: Jim Brown/USA TODAY Sports
March 13, 2018 10:14:10 PM
STARKVILLE -- The time for answering questions has nearly expired.
For the past nine days, the Mississippi State women's basketball team has faced query after query about how it plans to bounce back from its 62-51 loss to South Carolina in the championship game of the Southeastern Conference tournament.
The loss ended MSU's 32-game winning streak and denied the program a chance to add its first SEC tournament title to its first SEC regular-season championship. It also brought with it a certain "sky-is-falling" storyline that suggested the Bulldogs had major issues to solve after their first loss.
On Monday, MSU finally received a new set of questions after it earned the No. 1 seed in the Kansas City Regional and learned it will play host to No. 16 seed Nicholls in the first round of the NCAA tournament at 5 p.m. Saturday (ESPN2) in Starkville.
MSU senior guard Victoria Vivians said it doesn't feel any different for the Bulldogs as they prepare for another run at a national title. Last season, MSU had something to prove after a 60-point loss to Connecticut in the Sweet 16. MSU answered that call with victories against Troy and DePaul in Starkville. It then defeated Kelsey Plum, the NCAA's all-time leading scorer, and Washington in the Sweet 16 and Baylor in the Elite Eight to earn its first trip to the Final Four.
MSU then posted one of the biggest wins in the history of the sport when it outlasted four-time reigning national champion UConn 66-64 in overtime to advance to the national title game. A loss to South Carolina in the final game ended a program-best 34-5 season.
MSU stands three wins from adding another piece of history to a season filled with firsts. A single-season record for wins would be a fitting way for seniors Roshunda Johnson, Blair Schaefer, Vivians, and Morgan William to end their careers. Schaefer, Vivians, and William enter the tournament with 121 wins, which is the most by any class at MSU. They also are the first senior class to play in the NCAA tournament all four seasons. Johnson, a transfer from Oklahoma State, has played the last two seasons at MSU.
But MSU will only be satisfied with six more wins. That's why the players said they are eager to start preparing for Nicholls (19-13), which earned an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament Sunday after beating Stephen F. Austin in the championship game of the Southland Conference tournament. It is the first appearance in the NCAA tournament for the Colonels.
"I feel like we are the same team from last year. We are going up in there with a chip on our shoulder and with an edge," Vivians said. "I just feel we are going to play to the best of our ability and not worry about what is going on behind us or in between."
Vivians also said the finality of the NCAA tournament won't be on her mind or the mind of her classmates. She feels the Bulldogs will be focused and ready to go to win one more game to realize their ultimate goal.
Johnson believes the Bulldogs still have a lot to prove this season. She said she would have said that even if MSU had defeated South Carolina in the title game of the SEC tournament.
"I feel like we always have to play like we have a target on our back and play like we have something to prove," Johnson said. "I think we have done that well this season, but we still have more to go."
That is the kind of focus that has driven the Bulldogs all season. It started in the preseason when MSU lost sophomore Jacaira "Iggy" Allen to a season-ending knee injury. Less than a month into the season, the Bulldogs had to reshuffle their lineup after Ameshya Williams left school. The personnel losses resulted in a four-guard attack with William, Johnson, Schaefer, and Vivians that has clicked virtually all season. With junior center Teaira McCowan in the post, MSU enters the NCAA tournament first in the SEC in scoring (82 points per game) and first in scoring defense (55.7 ppg.). MSU also ranked second in the SEC in field goal percentage (47.1 percent), first in 3-point field goal shooting percentage (39.2), and first in turnover margin (+8.8).
A sell-out crowd will be on hand at Humphrey Coliseum to watch MSU take the first step. MSU coach Vic Schaefer was pleased to see his team get a chance to play late in the afternoon Saturday after it had to play early Friday afternoon last season in its NCAA tournament opener.
"I don't have to write any excuses for people to get out of work," Schaefer said. "I am thrilled that we will be able to have 10,000 in here for an NCAA tournament game."
Blair Schaefer echoed that sentiment and said the Bulldogs are looking forward to playing in front of their home fans at least one more time. She said the challenge will be not to look too far ahead because many people might think MSU is a lock to advance to the Sweet 16 because Nicholls is a No. 16 seed and MSU already has defeated Oklahoma State (79-76 on Dec. 3 in Starkville) and Syracuse (76-65 on Dec. 21 in Las Vegas).
For a team that has spent the last nine days answering for its first loss, Blair Schaefer and the Bulldogs don't want their season to end having to answer more of the same kind of questions.
"We have to come out and perform and we have to kind of forget about how many people are here are and we have to realize we have one job and we have to win," Schaefer said. "We beat these teams before, so we have to figure out what we did good during these games and what we didn't and then whatever we didn't do good we have to fix that so we're prepared for whoever we have to play Monday."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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