STARKVILLE — You can feel the intensity when Teaira McCowan fixes her gaze on you.
Mississippi State women’s basketball coach Vic Schaefer has talked about that focus in McCowan’s first three seasons in Starkville. The veteran coach has said his 6-foot-7 junior center usually rises to the occasion when she senses a challenge or she is going up against another strong post player.
This season, Schaefer has said several times how important it is for McCowan to be engaged and productive, especially since she is MSU’s only returning post player who has seen significant minutes in the past two years.
On Wednesday night, McCowan was focused on and off the court. The result was a dominating effort that helped McCowan control the paint and the post-game media session.
McCowan scored a career-high 35 points and grabbed 19 rebounds to lead No. 5 MSU to a 90-79 victory against No. 9 Oregon before a crowd of 5,445 at Humphrey Coliseum.
Victoria Vivians poured in 26 of her season-high tying 30 points in the second half to push MSU to 10-0. It marked the first time since MSU has had two players score 30 or more points in the same game since Charetta Robinson (33 points) and Natasha Johnson (30) did it in a 108-85 victory against TCU on Dec. 31, 1992.
“I think I can be great,” McCowan said. “It will take hard work, dedication, and buying in.”
The answers were two of three McCowan gave to questions in the post-game media room. In previous years, McCowan hasn’t always locked eye contact with a questioner. On this occasion, her gaze didn’t waver, her eyes didn’t blink, and she didn’t flinch when asked how she is different from last season.
“I am way different because I don’t allow myself to get in the way of what I am trying to do and the goal of my team,” McCowan said.
McCowan didn’t allow any of the Ducks to get in her way, either. In one of her most active games of her career, McCowan had seven points in an 11-0 run at the end of the second quarter that helped MSU build a 45-33 halftime lead. The run came after Oregon (8-2) had cut MSU’s lead to 32-31 with 3 minutes, 49 seconds remaining in the half. McCowan scored the first points in the spurt off a pass from freshman Chloe Bibby, who attacked the zone and found a gap. The move drew a defender and created an opening to shovel the ball to McCowan, who scored and then converted a three point play.
That wasn’t the best play of the run.
After Jazzmun Holmes hit a jump shot and McCowan scored on a layup off a pass from Vivians, McCowan showed how locked in she was by taking a lob pass that wasn’t quite high enough and going up in one motion. McCowan did that because she realized the shot clock was about to expire and she had to get the ball to the rim. She then rebounded her miss and converted the putback.
Oregon coach Kelly Graves praised the effort of McCowan, who dominated the post despite having to contend with multiple players with size. Oregon’s Ruthy Hebard, a 6-4 sophomore, led Oregon with 25 points on 11-for-12 shooting and seven rebounds. Mallory McGwire, a 6-5 sophomore center, had six points and five rebounds. Satou Sabally, a 6-4 freshman, had 17 points and two rebounds, but none of the Ducks could keep McCowan, who had 21 points and 10 rebounds at halftime, from the glass. Twelve of McCowan’s rebounds were on the offensive end. She finished one shy of matching her career high.
“She is an incredible player, and when she puts her mind to it there is not really a whole lot you can down there,” Graves said.
Graves said he wasn’t sure if the Ducks matched the Bulldogs’ physical play or their intensity. With only two seniors on his roster, Graves admitted he didn’t think his team was capable of doing that right now due to its youth.
Graves didn’t think McCowan was going to get 35 points and 19 rebounds, but he knew his team was going to have issues controlling McCowan.
“She was motivated tonight, for whatever reason,” Graves said.
Schaefer said he told McCowan she could get “as many as you want tonight” based on film he had watched of Oregon and how he believed the Ducks would try to defend the post. He said McCowan delivered “a pretty full night’s work.” She also had five blocked shots in 35 minutes.
“What T showed you tonight is some of the development (associate head) coach (Johnnie) Harris has done with her,” Schaefer said. “They have spent hours in the gym. For post players, it has to be repetition. It has to be a feel. I thought tonight T got a lot of stuff off second-chance stuff, offensive boards. She finished in contact.”
Schaefer also highlighted McCowan’s effort from the free-throw line. Before Schaefer could check the stat sheet, McCowan piped up and answered her coach by saying she went 5-for-6 from the free-throw line. Schaefer then gave McCowan a high-five for doing so well. McCowan entered the game shooting 43.2 percent after she shot better than 60 percent in her first two seasons.
McCowan has shown that level of engagement in other news conferences. On other nights, Schaefer has asked rhetorical questions, but McCowan has answered the question quickly to show she is paying attention. Against Oregon, McCowan was locked in and wasn’t going to be denied.
“That is another area she has worked hard in, the free-throw piece,” Schaefer said. “I thought she got some second-chance points. … You could look at her tonight and you saw an air of confidence. She gets that confidence because she has been worked with and she has developed. I thought her teammates looked for her tonight as well.”
Morgan William (13 points, four assists) said the Bulldogs are doing a better job of passing the ball high to McCowan so she can go right up with a shot and she doesn’t have to contend with one, two or however many players who are trying to stop her. She, too, said McCowan has matured since last season.
“It has been great watching her over the years,” William said. “Her freshman year from now, it has been a big step. … She is just a baller now. She was then, but now she is dominating consistently. I just know when I get her the ball she is going to get fouled or she is going to get a bucket. I have that trust in her that she is going to make a play.”
Just like he challenged McCowan to get 40 points prior to the game, Schaefer said McCowan has room for so much more growth.
“Find me somebody who got 35 and 19 against a top-10 team this year or the year before,” Schaefer said. “That is what I will tell her. Her interest, when she is like tonight and engaged and focused, man, she is a monster. You just can’t deal with her, but I need that daily, weekly monthly, and every night, and don’t get bored with it.”
More than nine minutes into the post-game news conference, McCowan was still paying attention. As Schaefer praised McCowan for her growth on the defensive end and for not picking up another “silly” foul in the first half, he said “the old Teaira probably would have gotten another one” and he would have had to sit her.
McCowan, who was sitting to Schaefer’s right, nodded her head with a bemused smile as she listened. When asked what she was thinking when her coach said that, McCowan said, “He said a year ago I would have probably picked up a second one, which is true. … I just look back and I would have probably gotten the second (foul) and the third one if he had left me out (on the court).
“I am just believing in myself and being more confident and just knowing when teams double me, it leaves shooters open on the outside, so they have to pick their poison, either double me or guard them.”
NOTE: After the game, Schaefer opened his post-game comments by praising his players for getting a 3.4 grade-point average this semester. He said 12 of the 14 players had a 3.0 or better. Four had a 4.0. “I am really proud of this team for their commitment in the classroom as well as on the court,” Schaefer said. … Schaefer also praised the play Holmes, the backup point guard, who replaced William with 2:56 left in the second quarter. Holmes hit a jump shot and was part of a 8-0 run that helped the Bulldogs build a 45-33 halftime lead. The cushion remained at least 10 points for the rest of the game. “I thought she did a really good job,” Schaefer said. … MSU shot 53.8 percent from the field and committed only eight turnovers. … The Ducks 56.1 percent from the field, their third-highest mark of the season. … MSU will play host to Maine at 2 p.m. Sunday (SEC Network+). The game will be the second installment of “Christmas at The Hump,” where fans can take pictures with Santa and enjoy a holiday reading at halftime.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.