STARKVILLE — The Mississippi State women’s basketball team has had an uncanny knack for making history the past three seasons.
Whether it’s imposing its defensive will on opponents or frustrating them by taking multiple charges, coach Vic Schaefer has used toughness to transform the Bulldogs into a national contender.
This season, MSU has climbed to a program record No. 4 in The Associated Press and USA Today polls by blending its trademark defense with an increasingly efficient offense. On any given night, the Bulldogs have seen numerous players emerge to make key contributions to keep the momentum going after a program-record 28-win season in 2015-16.
On Monday, MSU took another record-setting step thanks in large part to three players who have had integral roles in the program’s maturation. Junior guard Victoria Vivians had a game-high 23 points and six rebounds, senior guard Dominique Dillingham added a season-high 16, and junior point guard Morgan William had 14 points, four assists, and two steals to lead MSU to a 73-62 victory against Ole Miss before a crowd of 8,840 at Humphrey Coliseum.
Senior forward Breanna Richardson added nine points, 10 rebounds, three assists, and two steals to help MSU (19-0) eclipse the 2014-15 team for best start in program history. The win, which came before the second-largest crowd in program history and the second-largest for a women’s basketball game in the state, also extended the Bulldogs’ best start in Southeastern Conference play to 5-0.
“I’m really proud of my kids and I am proud of our fans,” Schaefer said. “It was a tough basketball game. Give Ole Miss credit. They competed to the end. We kind of slopped it up late, but their kids don’t quit. You don’t expect them to do that, but I am proud of mine. I thought we competed. I thought we answered the bell.”
Vivians went 6 of 10 from the field in the second half to finish 8 of 21 from the field. She drained a 3-pointer off an assist from William at the 8-minute, 9-second mark of the third quarter to help give the Bulldogs separation. Dillingham didn’t hesitate and added another trey off a pass from William before Vivians hit a jump shot on a nifty duck-in move to kick the Bulldogs’ lead to 46-29 with 7:05 left in the quarter.
Vivians also had a 3-pointer with 2:02 to go in the period that stemmed the tide after the Rebels had cut the deficit to 11. She added a layup off a run out following a missed shot that helped the Bulldogs right the ship.
“I am pretty sure (the 3-pointer) didn’t end their hopes because like coach said they kept fighting,” Vivians said. “That run really helped our momentum.”
Insell took the blame for the 3-pointer Vivians made that sparked the Bulldogs. He said he made an adjustment in the team’s defense and “took a gamble” that didn’t pay off.
Insell also praised Dillingham, who reached double figures for only the third time this season. In going 5 of 10 from the field, Dillingham, who missed six games due to knee surgery earlier in the season, attempted the most shots in a game this season. The effort was three games removed from a 28-minute performance against Arkansas in which she didn’t attempt a shot.
“She is a winner,” Insell said. “Anything Dillingham does doesn’t surprise me. They are a totally different team when she is in the game. Dillingham is the heart and soul of their team. Morgan William is arguably the best point guard in this league. Victoria is a great players, but when your heart and soul is Dominique Dillingham and when things are not going good for other kids, your heart and soul makes plays for you. That’s what she does. I will be 100 percent glad when Dillingham finally graduates because she can make tough plays at tough times.”
Dillingham said she hasn’t been as aggressive as she needs to be, so she said she had a different mind-set against Ole Miss. She said she did a better job getting to her spots in the paint and being ready to shoot when she had opportunities. She said she has been working on her shooting with assistant coach Carly Thibault to get back into form after being out of the lineup.
“I haven’t changed anything. It is just more repetitions,” Dillingham said. “I probably am getting my legs more underneath me now, too, because of practice and repetition.”
MSU, which earned its sixth-straight victory against Ole Miss, complemented its offensive flurries in the third quarter with several timely plays on defense. Dillingham took a charge that helped send center Taylor Manuel (four points in 25 minutes) to the bench with foul trouble, while William made a steal and threw the ball off an Ole Miss player for a turnover.
Still, MSU couldn’t pull away thanks to a 38.7-percent shooting effort from the field. The Bulldogs made up for it by going 18 of 21 (85.7 percent) from the free-throw line. Although she didn’t have a field goal, Teaira McCowan was 4 of 4 from the free-throw line for all her points. She added nine rebounds. Chinwe Okorie added five points and four rebounds on a night Ole Miss had a 34-24 edge in points in the paint.
Twenty-two turnovers doomed Ole Miss (13-5, 2-3 SEC) and helped MSU push the lead back to 22 in the fourth quarter, only to see Ole Miss close to within 70-60 in the final two minutes.
Shandricka Sessom led Ole Miss with 16 points. Alissa Alston had a season-high 14, while Sessom had a team-high nine rebounds.
“We forced 11 turnovers in each half, and I really just thought we pretty much controlled the game in a great environment,” Schaefer said. “It’s not like that most places. What you saw out there tonight is the norm at Mississippi State and 10 or 12 other places in the country. That’s it.”
MSU climbs to No. 1 in Bracketology
Prior to the game, MSU moved from No. 2 to No. 1 in Charlie Creme’s Bracketology for the NCAA tournament.
Every year, Creme follows the teams on ESPN.com and uses Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) and Strength of Schedule (SOS), two of the factors the NCAA tournament selection committee uses, to make his best guess at which 64 teams will be invited to the Big Dance.
MSU’s RPI and SOC appear to be the biggest reasons for its ability to displace Maryland as a No. 1 seed. Connecticut, Notre Dame, South Carolina, and MSU are the top four teams in the RPI through games played Jan. 15, according to the NCAA and RealTimeRPI.com. UConn and Notre Dame also are No. 1 and No. 2 in SOS, while South Carolina is No. 8 and MSU is No. 38. Maryland is No. 26 in both RPI and No. 95 in SOS.
Alabama and Vanderbilt are the only teams remaining on MSU’s regular-season schedule with RPIs outside of the top 100. MSU also plays Ole Miss, which has a No. 99 RPI, one more time, as well as South Carolina, which is the only top-10 RPI team remaining on MSU’s slate.
Last season, MSU’s non-conference SOS contributed to it receiving a No. 5 seed for the NCAA tournament. The top four seeds earn the right to play host to the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament. But Michigan State, which was the No. 4 seed, couldn’t serve as a host because there was a scheduling conflict with its home arena. As a result, MSU earned the chance to play host to the first two rounds. It defeated Chattanooga in the first round and then edged Michigan State 74-72 to advance to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament for the second time in program history. UConn defeated MSU 98-38 in Bridgeport, Connecticut, en route to its fourth-straight national championship.
This season, NCAA tournament regionals will be March 24-27 in Bridgeport, Connecticut; Lexington, Kentucky (Rupp Arena); Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; and Stockton, California.
MSU will take on Alabama at 7 p.m. Thursday in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.