Twelve years ago, Ron Artest of the Indiana Pacers went into the stands during a game brawl in Detroit, an incident that became part of NBA infamy known as Malice in the Palace.
Since then, there have been other incidents where a player or players have gone into the stands. Rules to prevent this behavior have been put in place and, if it happens on the pro level, players can expect hefty fines if they break this rule.
Yet it’s now a matter of routine at Mississippi State women’s basketball games.
Yes, it happens all the time in Starkville.
It happened Friday and the unrepentant Bulldogs plan to do it again today.
Friday afternoon, moments after the team toughed out a 60-50 win over Tennessee-Chattanooga in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the entire MSU roster spilled into the stands at Humphrey Coliseum as security staff stood passively by.
Malice in the Palace? Nah, it’s more like Alice in the Palace. It has that sort of a fairy-tale quality about it.
It marked the 15th time this season the Bulldogs ascended into the seats at Humphrey Coliseum to revel in an MSU win. Before they celebrate among themselves in the MSU locker room, Bulldog players first celebrate with their fans.
“All of us go up there,” sophomore Victoria Vivians, the team’s marquee player, noted during the post-game news conference. “We’ve been doing it all season.”
Hugs, smiles and selfies are shared indiscriminately. Toddlers are scooped up into the arms of affectionate players. In other parts of the country, people “hug.” Here, they “hug your neck” — it is not some perfunctory greeting; it is an expression of genuine warmth. The crowd eats it up, of course. The players do, too.
For the Bulldogs, is their preferred way to express appreciation for the unprecedented support of the program.
Friday’s game tipped off smack dab in the middle of the work day. The campus was pretty much deserted; MSU students are on spring break.
Even so, 5,115 fans turned out at The Hump to watch the Bulldogs grind their opponent into submission, which is their custom.
“To have that many people come out and support us, it’s amazing,” said Chinwe Okorie, the Bulldogs’ six foot, five inch junior center from Lagos, Nigeria. “At 1:30, that’s when people are usually out there trying to make a living. So for people to give that up to come and support us, it must means so much to all of us. So we want to thank them. That’s why we go into the stands.”
Until recent years, finding a fan to hug at a Mississippi State women’s basketball game — or at a women’s game at most places — would require a real effort.
” I have been to the west coast and played in front of 400,” noted Vic Schaefer, the Bulldogs’ fourth-year coach. “I have been other places where we don’t play in front of the kind of crowd we saw (Friday).”
Big crowds, especially by women’s basketball standards, have become the norm at MSU.
This year, for the second year in a row, the Bulldogs have shattered attendance records. Friday’s turnout pushed MSU home attendance to 85,820 for the season, an average of 5,048 fans per game. MSU is 16th in attendance nationally.
That’s a far cry from when Schaefer arrived in Starkville. In his first season, the Bulldogs drew fewer than 2,000 fans per game.
That’s all changed now. Friday’s game, televised by ESPN, alerted fans of the game across the country to what is happening in Starkville.
“To be able to play in this environment, in that setting…You talk about the college-athlete experience,” Schaefer said. “That is an NCAA tournament atmosphere. That is what our game desperately needs.
“I couldn’t be more proud of my fans. We appreciate them so much. The love they have for my girls is really unique and special.”
Today, there will be one last opportunity this season for a post-game love fest.
Fifth-seeded MSU will face fourth-seeded Michigan State at 1:30 p.m. today. The winner will advance to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where it will most assuredly face The Team Which Shall Not Be Named. You don’t figure there will be neck-hugging after that one, but that’s a worry for another day.
Sunday’s game is all that matters now.
Tickets are available — I assume. MSU officials expect an even larger turnout for this game, so you might want to arrive early. A ticket is $20. For that Andrew Jackson, you get to watch a tenacious team fight it out in an electric atmosphere. Concessions are available at a modest price.
And, as always, the post-game hugs are free.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is email@example.com
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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