“The big thing for us right now in this program, we’ve been trying to teach them competitiveness, toughness, and I think we’ve instilled that in the program. The next step now is to add to the skill set that we don’t have to try to change tat a little bit in the program.”
— Mississippi State women’s basketball coach Vic Schaefer following a 63-36 loss to Alabama in the Southeastern
Conference tournament on March 6, 2013
There have been humbling times for Vic Schaefer in five years in Starkville.
A 22-day stretch in January 2013 was the most trying time for the veteran coach, as the Mississippi State women’s basketball lost to Vanderbilt by 51 points, Kentucky by 53, and Texas A&M by 48. A season that showed so much potential in a 50-38 victory against then-No. 11 Georgia at Humphrey Coliseum ended with a thud to Alabama in the first round of the Southeastern Conference tournament in Duluth, Georgia.
Schaefer talked after that game about being “heartbroken” and “disappointed” for the way his first season at MSU ended. He also spoke with hope that the seeds for growth were there. MSU showed glimpses of that potential when it held Georgia to 18.2-percent shooting in the signature victory of Schaefer’s first season in Starkville.
Thinking back to the crowd of 1,350 that was in Humphrey Coliseum to see that victory against Georgia, it is hard to fathom the heights Schaefer and his program have climbed in a little more than four years. If you recall Schaefer in that first season, he seemed ready to explode with emotion. He appeared to hang on every call and poured so much of himself into every possession that you sometimes worried he was going to exhaust himself.
There probably have been more than a few times Schaefer and his coaches have worked themselves to exhaustion to push, to prod, and to encourage their players to do more. There is no doubt they have done that with recruits in trying to lure the nation’s best players to Starkville so they could be a part of a vision.
That vision crystallized Sunday night when Schaefer fell to his knees and lifted his arms above his head following second-seeded MSU’s 94-85 overtime victory against top-seeded Baylor in the championship game of the NCAA tournament’s Oklahoma City Regional at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
The victory secured MSU (33-4) a spot against four-time reigning national champion Connecticut (36-0) at 9 p.m. Friday in the Final Four at American Airlines Center in Dallas. Stanford (32-6) and South Carolina (31-4) will play in the first national semifinal at 6:30 p.m. Friday. The winners of both games will face off Sunday for the national title.
There were so many lasting images from the victory against Baylor and the celebration that followed. There was junior point guard Morgan William coming off a baseline screen to receive a pass and then bouncing back behind the 3-point arc to attempt a shot. William played with so much confidence and poise you knew the shot was going to go in. That scenario played out time after time after time to the tune of a career-high 41 points to help the Bulldogs qualify for their first Final Four. There was sophomore center Teaira McCowan tipping away an inbounds pass intended for Kalani Brown with 3.4 seconds left in regulation to help preserve a 75-all tie to send the game into overtime. There was Schaefer telling William to “calm down” in the waning seconds when it looked like MSU was going to seal the deal and slay the region’s No. 1 seed.
After the final horn, MSU associate head coach Johnnie Harris reached down to a kneeling Schaefer and hugged him. The rest of the coaching staff followed suit for a bear hug that epitomized the family core upon which the program was built.
Following a celebration that cut down both nets, Schaefer talked in the post-game news conference about the “blood, sweat, and tears” senior Ketara Chapel, Dominique Dillingham, Chinwe Okorie, and Breanna Richardson poured into the program. He talked about their commitment. He credited the school’s administration for getting behind his program and helping it become a shining example for the rest of the country. More than 11,000 fans came out to watch two NCAA tournament games in Starkville. MSU drew a crowd of 10,500 for its regular-season finale and finished seventh in the nation in attendance.
On Monday, the hit parade continued as The Associated Press named junior guard Victoria Vivians a third-team All-American and William an honorable mention All-American.
Vivians, a first-team All-SEC performer this season, earned All-America honors last season. William, a second-team All-SEC pick, is the fifth Bulldog to earn All-America recognition.
There figure to be many more in the future. They will play for a coach who still embraces his defensive core but who has recognized the need to branch out and to get better on offense. The result has been a team that has scored 110, 92, 75, and 94 points in its NCAA tournament victories.
In addition to his changing — not softer — ways, Schaefer has exhibited greater patience and learned to harness his emotions, or at least conceal them better than he did on the sidelines in his first season. He often has remained stoic, with arms folded tightly across his chest, as he has watched his team play this season. There weren’t very many, if any, of those instances Sunday, but Schaefer’s ability and willingness to change played a crucial part in his team’s ability to push the program to the Final Four.
“I think these kids have earned that respect throughout the course of the season,” Schaefer said March 6, 2013. “Again, I’m awfully proud of them and I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished this year with this team.”
Schaefer said those words after the loss to Alabama. He easily could have said them Sunday night. Schaefer’s consistency and passion have driven the Bulldogs and paved the way for a memorable journey in which he and his coaches have transformed a program that went through so many humbling lessons early on into one of the best in the nation.
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. You can reach him by email at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.