STARKVILLE — Place a check mark next to the Mississippi State women’s basketball team’s first objective of the 2016-17 season.
While games against Villanova, Maine, and Tulane presented challenges, many looked to MSU’s meeting against Texas on Sunday to see just how good the Bulldogs could be this season.
A year ago, MSU won its first five games before losing to Texas 53-47 in Austin, Texas.
This season, MSU showed how far it has come in nearly a year with a 79-68 victory against a team that entered the game ranked No. 8 in The Associated Press Top 25.
The victory catapulted MSU (4-0) to No. 7 in The AP poll, which matches its highest ranking in that poll.
MSU will look to place three more check marks on its schedule this weekend when it plays three games in three days at the Rainbow Wahine Showdown in Hawaii. MSU will face Oregon at 7 p.m. Friday, San Jose State at 7 p.m. Saturday, and Hawaii at 8:30 p.m. Sunday.
MSU coach Vic Schaefer doesn’t know how his team will respond this weekend, but he acknowledged there are similarities between the win against Texas and a 74-61 victory against No. 16 West Virginia in the semifinals of the Preseason Women’s National Invitation Tournament on Nov. 20, 2014.
The win against West Virginia was MSU’s first “big” non-conference win, and first signature victory against a ranked team since a 50-38 win against No. 11 Georgia in Schaefer’s first season.
The victory against West Virginia, though, proved MSU was making progress after a 22-win season that saw it advance to the quarterfinals of the Postseason WNIT. The victory was part of an 18-game winning streak to open the season that propelled the Bulldogs back to the NCAA tournament.
Two years later, the victory against Texas could set MSU up to make a similar run. Like in 2014-15, the Bulldogs are looking to validate their showing — a run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament — from the previous season.
This season, they will try to do it against the toughest non-conference season Schaefer has assembled in his time in Starkville. Road games against Iowa State, Southern Mississippi, Arkansas-Little Rock, and SMU and Grambling or USC (in Los Angeles) remain before MSU closes its non-conference schedule with games against Alabama State and Northwestern State late in December in Starkville.
MSU will play host to LSU at 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 1, 2017, to kick off Southeastern Conference play. The Bulldogs should be battled tested by that time and have proven if they deserve to be ranked in the top 10.
“What has happened between then and now is there have been a lot of big wins,” Schaefer said. “I hope (the game against Texas) gives us that confidence and shows us, ‘Hey, if we are who everybody thinks you are, you’re supposed to defend your home court.’ I think we have learned how to do that.”
Schaefer has tried the emphasize his team’s growth by telling his players “it is time to live it,” which means they have to live up to the higher expectations by practicing hard every day and doing all of the other things so they can “walk the walk and not just talk the talk.”
Senior Dominique Dillingham said the team is still adjusting to the role of being the hunted rather than the hunter. She said the team has been moving in that direction the past few years and that all of the players understand the mind-set they need to have to live up to their ranking.
Dillingham said MSU gained a sense of confidence from beating West Virginia. She said the win against Texas also gave them a boost. But she feels the program has matured and is at a different place than it was two years ago.
“I think we know how good we are, but it is about living it every day, like (coach) says, every day,” Dillingham said. “We beat a great team, but we have to come back today at practice and work on the things we did wrong and build on what we did last night.”
If MSU can do that after every game, it is bound to add plenty of check marks to its schedule. Listening to Dillingham, you get the sense she has a pencil sharpened and ready to go.
“It is not really any pressure. It is just coming out right and coming out strong,” Dillingham said. “You always want to punch first. I think that is the biggest thing, coming out strong. That really helps in the game, coming out with the right mind-set and focus.
“I don’t think you should ever be comfortable because somebody is always trying to come get your spot or somebody is always coming after, so you can never be satisfied.”
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.