Mississippi State’s women’s basketball team achieved what it set out to do this weekend.
For the second straight year, the Bulldogs are headed to the NCAA Sweet 16 and will now be off to Oklahoma City to meet the winner of tonight’s Washington-Oklahoma game on Friday.
MSU punched its ticket Sunday with a 92-71 win over DePaul after breezing past Troy, 110-69, in Friday’s opening round.
While the outcome might have been predictable, how the Bulldogs achieved that result most definitely was not.
They did it with offense and with players who rarely command the spotlight.
And they did it with joy.
Nothing better illustrated those qualities than a stretch in the third quarter, when Mississippi State began to pull away.
Back-up point guard Jazzmun Holmes was driving the ball up the court, closely guarded, in a game that every trip down the floor felt as though it were the pivotal moment.
In these situations, players are generally a study in concentration and their features show it. The game is about focus and intensity and grim resolve. And while there may be moments during the course of a game when players exhibit a joyous moment — a brief smile or embrace of a teammate after a big basket — that sort of expression never, ever happens when the ball is in play.
No, when the game is on the line, the players’ demeanor resembles that of a bomb-squad expert who isn’t entirely sure which color wire he is supposed to snip.
So there is Holmes, a back-up player, driving the ball up the court as DePaul defenders swarm around her like disturbed hornets.
And she is actually grinning.
“I knew they couldn’t guard me,” Holmes later explained. “It felt like I was back in high school again.”
That was pretty much how it went all weekend — an expected outcome achieved by unexpected means.
Even Bulldogs’ coach Vic Schaefer had to admit he was a bit surprised.
“Jazz comes of the bench and for 25 minutes runs my team, playing the most important position on the team,” Schaefer said. “She has six assists and one turnover as a sophomore leading the No. 7 team in the country on the biggest stage you can possible be on. She played with a presence today.”
In addition to the assists and turnovers, the stats by which point guards are measure, Holmes also added 14 points, a career-high.
You have to go all the way back to Friday to find the last time a Bulldog player scored a career-high in an NCAA Tournament game, which pretty much tells you all you need to know.
Blair Schaefer, who until Friday was a back-up guard and scored a career-best 21 points against Troy, again led the way with 18 points on Sunday in just her third game as a starter. Amesha Williams, a back-up forward, threw in a career-best 15 points against Troy.
That’s three-career highs for scoring in two games.
In all, eight Bulldog players scored in double figures over the weekend, six in MSU’s win over DePaul alone, this after Vic Schaefer tore up the starting lineup he had used throughout the season, inserting four new starters. Although she didn’t start Sunday, Holmes played most of the game in the place of starting guard Morgan William, who is second on the team in minutes played.
By the end of the day, you had the feeling Schaefer could just as easily have pulled the starting lineup out of hat for all it mattered.
During a season in which MSU had relied on smothering defense and gritty play, the Bulldogs were scoring points in bunches and, gasp, having fun doing it.
It hardly resembled the team that lost its last game entering the tournament, scoring just 49 points in a 10-point loss to South Carolina in the finals of the SEC Tournament.
“I came out of the SEC Tournament with my tail between my legs a little bit,” Schafer admitted. “I didn’t sit around eating bon bons and drinking coffee for the past week-and-a-half. I tried to figure out our problems. I’ve got a lot of offensive weapons, as y’all can see.”
While MSU is widely regarded for its defense, allowing just 56 points per game, the Bulldogs showed they have a lot of players who can score, as the 202 points in the two NCAA Tournament games clearly showed.
“Our kids really did a good job of attacking and doing some things offensively that we haven’t done all year,” Schaefer said. “Hopefully, we’re getting hot at the right time. That’s what this time of year is all about. If you’re gonna make it in this tournament, it’s about getting hot.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]