With their victory that startled the entire sporting world – that NCAA Final Four overtime shocker against vaunted UConn last April – the Mississippi State women’s basketball program as a group might have been tempted to pinch themselves, just to be sure it actually happened.
That wasn’t necessary – all the pats on the back told the Bulldogs this thing was real.
The tale will be told many times how MSU refused to back down, eventually posting a 66-64 win as now-senior guard Morgan William hit the game-winner as time expired. Remember, UConn had won 111 straight games and the last four NCAA titles, making it hard to believe there was such a thing as a different outcome.
Today, it’s hard to believe people will stop asking head coach Vic Schaefer about it. They probably won’t, but he’s tasked with a 2017-18 encore, and time’s getting tight.
“When you are around the folks we are every day, and you’re in the place we’re at, it’s very special. We’ve had people tell us it’s the single most special athletic they’ve ever been at in their life, not to mention the most special Mississippi State athletic event they’ve been to,” said Schaefer, whose team went 34-5 last year and will play Arizona State, Columbia and Green Bay in the upcoming Cancun Challenge. “There are people who never came to a women’s basketball game before we came here, and now they never miss one, and they even travel with us. We had fans travel to Dallas without a ticket, spend $700 on a ticket to see history made. It’s hard to get people to stop talking about it, and it doesn’t matter if we want to move or not. When we hung our banner Nov. 10, I addressed the crowd and said, when the banner gets to the top, we are done.
“We have to let this team move on and be who they are. This team will get everybody’s best shot because of what (a different group) did. Fair or unfair … that’s what they have to be prepared for.”
Of course, the current Bulldogs team is hardly the type to rattle easily. With William at point guard, Victoria Vivians at shooting guard and Teaira McCowan at center, Mississippi State has three players on national-award watch lists for their position, all able to affect a game offensively and defensively. There will be many nights when MSU forces an avalanche of turnovers and stuns the opposition with the numerous ways it can score.
Schaefer said his team doesn’t have the depth of last year’s squad, so those nights when the wrong mix of fouls is being called could create some stress. And even on good nights, playing in the Southeastern Conference is enough to spawn a migraine.
“It’s a nightmare of a league. There are 16 rivalry games, and it either gets you ready for postseason, or it gets you ready for the offseason,” Schaefer said. “It’s the best of the best. Night in, night out, no matter who you are playing, if you don’t play well you’re not just going to get beat, you’ll get embarrassed. You have to really be on your toes every game.”
“We have the toughest conference; every game is a knock-down, drag-out,” said Vivians, who is about to become the program’s third player to reach 2,000 career points. “It’s hard to play in the SEC, and I feel we have the toughest conference.”
Vivians does not always hit a high percentage of her shots, but there’s something about her relentless play, and her knack for converting when the offense really needs it, that will make her one of the most appreciated competitors to ever suit up for MSU. Her 3-pointer with about a minute left in regulation against UConn (which cut the deficit from four points to one) gets forgotten sometimes, but not by Schaefer.
“I’ve seen her have 66 points one night with three people hanging on her, and then have 41 the next morning at 9 a.m. with four people hanging on her. I’ve seen her make the toughest shots you could possibly make in high school and in college,” he said. “When Vivian hit that 3 to cut it from a four-point lead to just one, that was as as big of a shot as any we made in that game. That was a sideline out-of-bounds play with 1 second on shot clock, and without that we never get to the point where Morgan hits the shot to win it.
“Her percentages are dictated because she gets everybody’s best defender. She might take what you think is a bad shot, but unless I say it’s a bad shot, it’s not.”
Vivians is determined to bring her naturally positive outlook into the locker room in this, her final season, as Schaefer looks to find the right rotations in a season where the Bulldogs will be targets. There’s hope that the Cancun trip will be part of that process.
“Hopefully, we will come to know our team a little better. Those are some good opponents and some well-coached teams,” he added. “It’s a great opportunity early in the season to get some information; we hope to see some good things, and hope the bad things aren’t that glaring.”