OKLAHOMA CITY — Vic Schaefer has said all season that Teaira McCowan’s upside is unlimited.
On Friday, a national television audience earned a glimpse of McCowan’s potential in one of the most dominating performances in Mississippi State women’s basketball history.
McCowan scored 16-straight points in the fourth quarter en route to a career-high 26 points to lead second-seeded MSU to a 75-64 victory against third-seeded Washington in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
The win helped send MSU (32-4) to the Elite Eight for the first time in program history. It will take on top-seeded Baylor (33-3) at 6:30 p.m. Sunday for a chance to go to the Final Four in Dallas.
Victoria Vivians had 13 points and Blair Schaefer added 10 to join McCowan in double figures. But McCowan, who also had 12 rebounds (career-high eight offensive) and a career-high six blocked shots, was the dominating force that kept the Bulldogs’ record-setting season going.
“Tonight we kind of emptied the playbook for T,” Schaefer said. “We ran a lot of different things to get her down there. But we wanted to get her to spots where she’s really comfortable. We flipped the sides of the floor midway through that run to give them a different look.”
Trailing 50-48 to start the fourth quarter, MSU went to McCowan for a jump-start. The 6-foot-7 sophomore center worked off a screen from Blair Schaefer and scored off a pass from Morgan William. She converted the three-point play to give MSU the lead for good.
McCowan then took over the game on the offensive end. She rebounded a miss by Dominique Dillingham and scored, she hit a jump shot, she rebounded a miss by Breanna Richardson and scored, she rebounded a miss by Morgan William and scored.
The play of the game might have come next.
Instead of being denied by what looked to be a triple-team, McCowan rebounded her own miss and ripped the ball from the hands of Washington’s Kelsey Plum, who was trying to force a held ball. McCowan then turned and scored and pumped her fist and celebrated the basket. She converted the free throw to give MSU a 62-52 lead with 6:52 remaining.
But McCowan wasn’t done.
An inbounds pass from William found McCowan, who completed the scoring burst. McCowan added five blocks in the quarter, including one on Plum, who entered the game as the nation’s leading scorer at 31.8 points per game.
When asked what changed for her in the fourth quarter, McCowan said, “(My teammates) said, ‘T, you got to dominate.’ Just taking that in, listening to my teammates, knowing I had to step up, take my team, like, further, that’s when I had the look in my eye like nobody can stop me. You have to do what your teammates are asking you to do.”
Washington (29-6) cut the deficit to 68-62 with 3:15 to go, but MSU used big shots down the stretch from William and McCowan to help seal the deal.
“McCowan is a tough matchup, really tough matchup,” Washington coach Mike Neighbors said. “She was very motivated. She got going, got really confident, started hitting some turnaround shots. We simply can’t do anything about that.”
Washington senior center Chantel Osahor, who entered the game as the nation’s leading rebounder (15.4 per game), shouldered the blame for not doing a better job of keeping McCowan away from the rim. Osahor had 17 points and 11 rebounds in 40 minutes.
“I didn’t do a very good job today,” said Osahor, who is 6-2. “She was the difference-maker, McCowan was. She had 26-12. She had some big baskets at the end. That was my fault. I just didn’t box out hard enough. But credit to her. She had a good game.”
Schaefer said he has been trying to get McCowan to deliver efforts like this one more often. McCowan has shown flashes of being able to control the game against Florida, when she scored 25 points, against Ole Miss in Oxford, when she had 17 points and 18 rebounds, and against Texas A&M in College Station, Texas, when she had 16 points and 13 rebounds.
But Schaefer has been looking for more games like that from McCowan, which is why he said he has been hard on her and continued to push her against Washington.
“She’s come so far, yet she’s got so far to go,” Schaefer said. “Her upside is out of sight. This kid can be an All-American before it’s all said and done. She can dominate the game. As y’all saw tonight, she dominated the game on both ends of the floor.”
The game went back and forth for the first three quarters. Washington hit four of its first five 3-pointers to open the game and used that fast start to take a 20-13 lead after one quarter.
MSU tightened its defense in the second quarter and played one of its best quarters of the season, outscoring Washington 25-9. Vivians, who came off the bench with Breanna Richardson, Chinwe Okorie, and Dominique Dillingham, had nine points in the quarter.
Washington regained the momentum in the third quarter thanks to Plum, who had 10 points in the quarter and helped Washington re-take the lead entering the final 10 minutes.
From there, McCowan took center stage as the Bulldogs inched closer to the sport’s biggest stage.
“I jumped on her back when we got in the locker room (after the game) because I felt like she was carrying us most of the night,” Schaefer said. “Offensively, she was really special down the stretch. (She) had that look in her eye, wanted the ball, got to her spots where she needs to get.”
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.