In his first year as Mississippi State’s women’s basketball coach in 2012, Vic Schaefer didn’t pay much attention to attendance.
“Back then, I didn’t care if they just left the doors open, to be honest,” Schaefer said Friday.
He had other things to worry about, mainly building the kind of team fans would actually want to see.
On Monday, Schaefer’s No. 2 ranked Bulldogs will take on seventh-ranked South Carolina, which beat MSU in last year’s National Championship game and has denied the Bulldogs SEC Tournament titles in each of the past two seasons.
As expected, Schaefer and his players say they attach no special significance to this game. It’s the one-game-at-a-time posture that coaches and players have been adopting since the competitive sports began. To the extent that losing to South Carolina sticks in their collective craw — the only SEC team Schaefer’s team hasn’t beaten since his arrival in Starkville — the coach and players aren’t throwing any gasoline on the firestorm of anticipation this match-up has created.
They don’t have to, either.
Bulldog fans — and, in fact, the entire women’s game — have had this rematch circled on the calendars since the Bulldog and Gamecocks walked off the floor in Dallas last April.
“When you have a sell-out two weeks in advance, when student tickets sold out in eight minutes, when you go to StubHub right now and a $5 general admission ticket is selling for $230, I think’s a pretty anticipated matchup,” Schaefer said.
The game before the game has been getting into the game. It’s a time when even the most obscure connections are exploited. Somebody’s cousin cuts the coach’s wife’s hair. Maybe she can get us tickets. A neighbor is the equipment manager for the soccer team. That’s the kind of inside connection that should be good for a ticket, right?
On Monday, the Bulldogs will draw the biggest crowd ever to watch a basketball game — men or women — in Mississippi history and will break the MSU’s women’s single-game attendance record of 10,626 set two years ago against you-know-who.
South Carolina won that game, 57-51.
Bulldog fans remember that one and all the others, too. Almost 11,000 fans will have something to say about that Monday evening.
The only thing for certain Monday is that Humphrey Coliseum, long noted for the acoustics that seem to trap and amplify sound, will be ear-plug recommended.
“I do notice our arena and how loud it gets,” Schaefer said. “It’s hard not to. Suzy Merchant (whose Michigan State team lost to MSU in an NCAA Tournament game last season at “The Hump”) said the 7,000 people there sounded like 70,000. That’s the acoustics we have in our building. It’s one of the things that makes it so special. Our fans appreciate good basketball and they’re hungry for it.”
Hungry is probably an understatement.
“It’s crazy now,” said senior Victoria Vivians, one of most popular athletes on campus, male or female. (She was chosen as Homecoming Queen last fall.) “When I first got here, we had some fans, but nothing like this. In the classroom and around campus, everybody knows the team — not just certain players, either. They know everybody on the team. Everywhere you go, they’re asking you about this player or another player. It didn’t use to be like that.”
On Nov. 9, 2012, Schaefer coached his first game at Mississippi State.
“I just remember saying, ‘Anybody that wants to come, come on,'” he said.
Just 1,234 fans took him up on the offer that night.
Quite literally, the Bulldogs couldn’t give tickets away back then.
Monday night, they’ll come, though — about 10,000 more than on that November night when Schaefer’s first MSU team took the floor.
“It has become special,” Schaefer said. “If there’s a women’s basketball game on somebody’s calendar for as long as this one, you’re doing something right.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]