STARKVILLE — Vic Schaefer often uses the phrase he’s “coaching against the ghost” to explain his work ethic and drive to make the Mississippi State women’s basketball program the best in the nation.
For the last three seasons, Dawn Staley’s South Carolina Gamecocks have been the immovable object in MSU’s path to reach that goal. Last season, the Gamecocks defeated the Bulldogs three times, including in the championship game of the Southeastern Conference tournament and in the national championship game. Two years ago, South Carolina beat MSU twice, including in the SEC tournament title game.
Schaefer and MSU will try to end an 11-game losing streak to South Carolina at 6 tonight (ESPN2) when the No. 2 Bulldogs take on the No. 7 Gamecocks at a sold-out Humphrey Coliseum.
“I am excited about our kids being able to play in front of a packed house,” Schaefer said. “It should be a great atmosphere for both teams in a meaningful game.”
MSU (23-0, 9-0 SEC) enters the game on a program-record winning streak to start the season. It also has a two-game lead in the loss column against South Carolina (18-4, 7-2) and its nearest competitors with seven league games remaining. A victory tonight would go a long way to helping the Bulldogs chart a path to their first SEC regular-season title.
To accomplish that goal, MSU will have to contend with reigning SEC Player of the Year and senior All-American A’ja Wilson, who is averaging 22.7 points and 11.5 rebounds per game. Alexis Jennings and Tyasha Harris add 13.9 and 13.7 points per game, respectively, in SEC games.
Schaefer is 0-9 against South Carolina in his six seasons at MSU. Kentucky is the only other SEC team he hasn’t beaten in his tenure at Starkville.
MSU hopes a packed Humphrey Coliseum will aid its cause. Schaefer said earlier this week that the MSU women hope to break the all-time attendance mark in the Hump. A student section that sold out in eight minutes figures to help the cause.
“A’ja Wilson is going to be the first pick in the (WNBA) draft. That makes her the best player in college basketball,” Schaefer said. “We’re going to have to do a great job against them at every position.”
MSU is coming off a 57-53 victory at No. 15 Missouri on Thursday. The Bulldogs had to overcome a nine-point halftime deficit to remain one of two undefeated Division I teams in the nation. Connecticut is the other undefeated team.
“The kids played exceptionally hard and found a way to win that wasn’t our best offensively but defensively certainly was back in the mold of who we are and what we are about,” Schaefer said.
Blair Schaefer led MSU with a SEC-best 20 points, while Victoria Vivians had 15 points, including what proved to be the game-winning jump shot in the waning seconds.
Teaira McCowan had her 16th double-double of the year with 17 points and 17 rebounds. McCowan and Vivians are the SEC’s top-scoring duo, rating third and fourth on the year, averaging 19.8 and 19.4 ppg., respectively.
McCowan is one of 10 finalists for the Lisa Leslie Award, which is given to the nation’s top center, while Vivians and senior point guard Morgan William have been named to the midseason watch list for the Dawn Staley Award.
Vivians and Blair Schaefer talked last week about treating the game against South Carolina as just another game in the league in an effort to convey the need to remain focused. The last time South Carolina came to Starkville a program-record crowd of 10,626 saw the Gamecocks earn a 57-51 victory. The all-time attendance mark in the Hump is 10,788 for the MSU’s men’s basketball team’s game against Kentucky on Feb. 16, 2010.
Schaefer acknowledged the “rivalry” has been “one-sided” in South Carolina’s favor. But he also said the Bulldogs have had some really good games against the Gamecocks and have been right there at the end, including in a 64-61 loss on Jan. 23, 2017, in Columbia, South Carolina.
With a team that is shooting 47.4 percent from the field, which is second in the SEC to South Carolina, and is averaging a SEC-best 79.8 ppg in league action, Schaefer feels the Bulldogs present plenty of matchup issues for South Carolina, just as he feels the Gamecocks will challenge the Bulldogs.
“For whatever reason, this team we have been saying all year, ‘this team, this year,’ ” coach Schaefer said. “I think they’re different. They handled it for 23 games. It is so hard to do. They not only have to handle the bull’s eye on their back for what somebody else did a year ago, but they also have to handle the fact that now they have won 23 in a row this year. They have taken it on like a champ. I think (tonight) is the next one.”
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.