KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Mississippi State women’s basketball team has encountered similar issues in its run to a program record for wins in a season.
Whether it has been the length, height, athleticism, or quickness of an opponent, MSU has handled the challenge and found a way to adjust in all but one game in the 2017-18 campaign.
All four of those qualities will come together at 6:30 tonight (ESPN) when No. 3 seed UCLA takes on No. 1 seed MSU in the Elite Eight portion of the NCAA tournament’s Kansas City Regional at the Sprint Center.
“I feel like we have played a lot of athletic teams this year in the SEC,” MSU senior guard Blair Schaefer said. “The SEC has a lot of length as well, so hopefully that experience in the SEC will carry over into tomorrow.”
MSU (35-1) set a program record for single-season victories Friday with a 71-57 win against No. 4 seed North Carolina State. Teaira McCowan matched an NCAA tournament record by going 11-for-11 from the field and scoring a team-high 24 points and grabbing a game-high 15 rebounds.
Victoria Vivians (14 points), Morgan William (13), and Roshunda Johnson (12) also scored in double figures on a night MSU stayed with the script and attacked. The Bulldogs won comfortably after shooting 52.8 percent from the field (28-for-53). They were only 3-for-11 from 3-point range and were outrebounded 30-28. But MSU had a 44-28 edge in points in the paint and an 18-6 cushion in points off turnovers.
Those two areas likely will be keys today against an opponent led by point guard Jordin Canada and post player Monique Billings. Canada, a 5-foot-6 senior, leads UCLA in scoring (16.9 points per game), assists (243), steals (111), 3-pointers (50), and minutes per game (33.6). Billings, a 6-4 forward, is second in scoring (15.4 ppg.) and leads the team in rebounding (9.6 per game). Both players were named first-team All-Pacific-12 Conference performers.
“She is a point guard overall, offensively and defensively,” William said. “She won defensive player of the year in the Pac-12. She has a great offensive game, improving each year, probably the best point guard I will go against this year.”
Like William, McCowan has faced a lot of talented individuals at her position. While it remains to be seen if Billings will go directly against McCowan, who is 6-7, she knows she will encounter challenges similar to the ones she experienced when she played South Carolina center A’ja Wilson, who is 6-5.
“Running the floor when I’m rebounding and she (Billings) sprints out, so knowing that my teammates have to sprint back and help me until I can get there counter moves she has,” McCowan said. “I have to stay down and not go for the first one or the second one or the third one, maybe the fourth one, but I have to stay down and contest her very well, hands straight up.”
Coach Schaefer must have liked the answer because he told McCowan “good job” as she and the four seniors exited the podium. Then it was Schaefer’s turn to break down a team that impressed him Friday with its ability to force turnovers (21) and turn those mistakes into a 31-13 edge in points off turnovers.
Canada fueled the victory with 22 points, five rebounds, eight assists, and five steals, while Billings had 17 points, eight rebounds, and three assists. Kennedy Burke added 15 points as part of a 50.7-percent shooting effort from the field (35-for-69). Like MSU, UCLA was 3-for-11 from 3-point range.
Schaefer credited Close for developing the program since the Bulldogs scrimmaged the Bruins two years ago in October in Dallas. UCLA, which advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2016 and 2017, is in its first appearance in the Elite Eight since 1999.
“I’m sitting there and watching last night (at courtside) and I have a lot of respect for Texas,” coach Schaefer said. “I just thought UCLA really dominated most of the game. I thought position by position they were really, really good.
“We are going to have our hands full. They are fast, quick, long, athletic, cover a lot of ground. … We will be ready. We’re excited about the opportunity. We run into these great teams a lot, and I’m excited to see our kids play again.”
Vivians echoed Schaefer’s thoughts about the challenges the Bulldogs have faced and overcome this season. She, too, feels MSU will be prepared.
“They are coming in and they’re hungry for it,” Vivians said. “But don’t come in and knock us down. We have the same energy we had last year (when they advanced to the national title game), so it’s just who is going to win.”
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.