It’s possible to see why some might have considered the Mississippi State women’s basketball team’s trip to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament a forgone conclusion.
Coach Vic Schaefer’s team entered the 2016-17 season with one of the nation’s most experienced squads. The Bulldogs were coming off their second trip to the Sweet 16, so conventional wisdom suggested they would be able to duplicate their accomplishments from the previous season.
A non-conference schedule that included more than 17,000 miles of travel didn’t make things any easier. The schedule was designed to boost the Bulldogs’ Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) and Strength of Schedule (SOS) for March, when the NCAA tournament selection committee crunched the numbers and seeded the 64-team field.
MSU’s numbers were impressive. Buoyed by the growth of numerous players, the Bulldogs’ team chemistry improved, as reflected by the fact that 10 players averaged double-digit minutes. At any given time, a starter could have a big game and lead the way, or another “starter” could come off the bench and fix something that was broken to provide a spark.
At the end of the regular season, Schaefer’s team had won 27 games, including a program-record 13 in the Southeastern Conference. Losses at Kentucky and to Tennessee on Senior Day in Starkville cost MSU a chance to win its first SEC title outright, or to earn at least a share of that crown.
Still, the Bulldogs regrouped in the SEC tournament to beat LSU and Texas A&M to advance to the championship game for the second-straight season. South Carolina again stood in the way, but this time MSU had a five-point lead entering the final 10 minutes. The Bulldogs apparently had all of the momentum, but that energy disappeared in the manner of minutes, as tournament MVP A’ja Wilson sparked the Gamecocks to a 59-49 victory.
That energy is back.
There’s no denying Schaefer left plenty of people scratching their heads and asking what he was thinking when he shuffled his lineup for MSU’s first- and second-round games in the NCAA tournament last weekend. He said the changes that saw Teaira McCowan, Blair Schaefer, Roshunda Johnson, and Ketara Chapel replace Chinwe Okorie, Dominique Dillingham, Victoria Vivians, and Breanna Richardson needed to be done. Not one to air his program’s dirty laundry in public, Schaefer hinted at reasons behind his move. They weren’t secrets. Schaefer talked about hustle, hard work, and giving everything you had every second you’re on the court. It was hard to quibble with the results. MSU scored 202 points in victories against 15th-seeded Troy and seventh-seeded DePaul to advance to the Sweet 16 in Oklahoma City, where it will take on third-seeded Washington at 6 p.m. Friday (ESPN2).
The Bulldogs will face a challenge against senior guard Kelsey Plum, who led the Huskies to a tie for second place with Stanford behind Oregon State in the Pacific-12 Conference, the top-rated RPI league in the nation. Earlier this season, Plum, the nation’s leading scorer at 31.8 points per game, passed Jackie Stiles to become the all-time leading scorer in women’s college basketball history. Senior center Chantel Osahor also is the nation’s leading rebounder.
An opponent like that is bound to get your attention, but MSU has shown this season it plays better when it feels it faces a challenge. This will be one of those times, especially for a team that believes it has something to prove based on its 98-38 loss to Connecticut last season in the Sweet 16 in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
“I feel like we wanted it more,” William said following the 92-71 victory against DePaul on Sunday. “Coach Schaefer kept telling us they had predicted us to lose this game and we were at home with our crowd. It was kind of like Senior Night again for the seniors. We had to redeem ourselves for (an 82-64 loss to Tennessee). … We just like playing at the Hump, and we wanted to get to the Sweet 16 again.”
William’s perspective reflected the growth of the team. Prior to the season, Schaefer wondered where the leadership would come from and if the 2016-17 team would have enough of it to help it realize its potential. The fact that William, a junior who has started every game the last two seasons, sat on the bench and watched sophomore Jazzmun Holmes operate for most of the second half Sunday spoke volumes about the Bulldogs’ maturation. In fact, William joked she encouraged Schaefer to let Holmes finish the fourth quarter against the Blue Demons because she was playing so well.
After the game, William beamed about Holmes, who she called “awesome” and praised her for her play that raised the team’s record to 31-4. Holmes deserved all of the platitudes after scoring a career-high 14 points and handing out six assists on a day when Blair Schaefer again led the team in scoring (18 points) and the Bulldogs put six players in double figures.
“People have always been wondering where we’re going to score,” William said. “The past couple of years it has been Victoria. But other people can go out there and shoot it, too. You can tell we have been working on our offense, moving the ball, getting good shots, getting good looks.”
These days, it doesn’t matter if William or Holmes is running the show, or if Vivians, Schaefer, Johnson, or Dillingham is on the perimeter. Good things are going to happen. You can say the same thing about Richardson or Chapel at the four position (power forward) or McCowan or Okorie at center. That’s a good sign for a team that still is looking to play its best basketball. On Sunday, MSU came pretty close against a team that won the Big East Conference regular-season title and was ranked No. 19 in the nation.
If MSU continues to bring the intensity it showed Sunday, there is no denying it can go all the way to the Final Four in Dallas. Listening to the Bulldogs after the victory against the Blue Demons, it sounded like they were ready to continue feeding, especially when you have someone like Holmes playing with a smile on her face and a confidence that no one can stop her.
“We suck that energy and juice from our point guards and it keeps us going,” Okorie said. “That is what we needed, and Jazz gave it to us. She was awesome, and she really gave it to us.”
It’s a foregone conclusion a team with juice like that can make it to the Final Four in Dallas.
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. You can email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.