Six hundred forty-four miles isn’t too far to travel for Jessica Cade.
Cade didn’t hesitate after the second-seeded Mississippi State women’s basketball team defeated seventh-seeded DePaul 92-71 on Sunday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at Humphrey Coliseum. She was going to Oklahoma City for the Sweet 16.
After watching all of MSU’s home games, Cade wasn’t about to let her daughter, Lilli Kathryn, miss the experience, either. That’s why Lilli Kathryn, a second-grader at Starkville Academy, won’t be in school today. She will be with her mother in Oklahoma City to watch MSU (31-4) take on third-seeded Washington (29-5) at 6 p.m. at Chesapeake Energy Arena. ESPN2 will broadcast the game.
“I wanted to make a sign that said, ‘I skipped school to watch the Bulldogs,’ but she wouldn’t let me,” said Cade, who attended the send-off for the team Wednesday with a homemade sign that said, “Go Dawgs.”
A Starkville native, Cade is a lifetime MSU fan who is a 2004 graduate of the school.
Jessica and Lilli Kathryn will be in a traveling party with Jessica’s mother, Melissa Hines, who is from Brooksville, and two of her friends, Sandi Mapp, also from Brooksville, and Claire Greer from Starkville. The group was scheduled to leave Thursday and arrive in Oklahoma City today.
“We love watching this team,” Cade said. “They are special, and I want them to know that the fans think they are special as well.”
Being part of the team
Cade said she and all of the fans appreciate the grassroots effort from coach Vic Schaefer, his staff and the players to make everyone feel like they are a part of the program. She said a perfect example is Lilli Kathryn has used a Polaroid camera to take pictures of all of the players when they visit with fans in the stands following home and away games.
She said her daughter has asked each player to autograph the bottom of their picture and she has saved them in an album. Cade said junior point guard Morgan William has even been kind enough to take her daughter back to the team’s locker room.
“I think whoever came up with that plan, it was a great plan because their fans feel really connected to the team, and feel like they are a part of the team even,” Cade said. “My mom was standing there talking to Dominique (Dillingham) and she said, ‘My granddaughter thinks she is a part of the team.’ Dominique said, ‘Well, she is.’ ”
Carolyn Malone-Phillips, a MSU women’s basketball season ticket holder who has lived in Starkville since 1971, feels the same way. She received two degrees from MSU and taught at the school for 24 years. She will travel to Oklahoma City with Carol Moss Read, a friend of hers since 1973 who is also from Starkville.
Traveling to games has become a habit for Malone-Phillips. She said she has traveled with Moss Read to see the MSU football team play in the Belk, Gator, Orange, Liberty and Music City bowls, so more than 600 miles to see the MSU women’s basketball team isn’t a big stretch.
“We are just diehard Bulldog fans,” Malone-Phillips said. “We love it.”
Growing fan base
Malone-Phillips has been going to women’s basketball games at MSU since 1977. At the time, her daughter was a ball girl.
“We used to have like 200 people there, maybe,” Malone-Phillips said.
Malone-Phillips also served as a foster parent to Polly Branch, who is a member of the Bulldogs’ 1,000-point club. She credits former MSU women’s basketball coach Sharon Fanning-Otis for laying the foundation that Schaefer could come in and build on. Schaefer took over in March 2012 after Fanning-Otis, who led the Bulldogs to their first trip to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament in 2010, retired.
Since Schaefer’s arrival, MSU has won more games with each new season. From 13 victories his first year to 31 (so far) this season, his last two teams have broken program records for wins.
It also is a point of pride that MSU ranked fourth out of 16 host sites in total attendance (11,150 fans) in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. The crowd of 6,035 was the seventh-best crowd of all sessions — first or second round.
Malone-Phillips said the connection Schaefer’s program has built with fans has helped it reach new heights. It also is why she was one of more than 50 people who turned out Wednesday afternoon to send the team off on its quest to advance to its first Final Four in program history.
“These young ladies work hard, they go to class, they make good grades. That is hard to do all that they do,” Malone-Phillips said. “They are allowed to go up in the stands and love on the children and do autographs. There is just something special about it.”
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.