Vivians’ three-point basket at 0:55 of overtime put Mississippi State ahead by a point, and on the way to a 63-61 final over #14 Texas A&M. The #17 Bulldogs walked off their home court 23-3 and 8-3 SEC, alone in third place in the league standings. The Aggies left 18-6, 6-4.
After 43 minutes of play though Texas A&M was positioned to beat the Bulldogs yet again. Not nearly by the whopping margins of 2013 or ’14 to be sure. But a couple of free throws by Courtney Walker at 1:58 gave a four-point lead, and even when Bulldog Breanna Richardson got loose for a layup the Aggies could have almost clinched the road win.
Except Walker, by-far the hottest shot on the A&M squad, rushed one on the other end and Vivians came down with the rebound at 1:15. Vivians was not having a good Sunday at all, only 1-of-8 shooting in 22 foul-limited minutes. That didn’t keep Coach Vic Schaefer from telling his freshman phenom to take the season’s biggest shot.
“I just felt that it was the time,” Schaefer said, calling Vivians to sprint from right-to-left corners and lose her game-long defender. Center Martha Alwal did her part with a screen, guard Morgan William—herself a second-half hero down the stretch—delivered the pass.
“I was just saying I’ve got to make this shot for us to take the lead and have a chance to win,” Vivians said. “I ran my heart out to get over there and get the ball and shoot.”
It was a perfect a stop-turn-catch-shoot as could be designed, especially as the ball rattled through. “Something about that side, she just makes the shot,” said William, already running back the other way before Vivians released. “I knew it was going in.”
Aggie Coach Gary Blair, Schaefer’s long-time boss, had that same impression with a different feeling. “It was the only shot she made in the second half,” Blair said. “She’s not hurting for confidence, I’d want her shooting the ball too.”
The shot didn’t seal victory though. At 62-61 Mississippi State still had to play defense not once but twice. Williams missed on a similar sort of baseline play and while Bulldog guard Savannah Carter rebounded she couldn’t shuffle hands to call timeout before stepping out of bounds. A&M got the ball back to Walker one more time, and again she was off the iron.
A mob chased the loose ball and it got flipped all the way back to halfcourt where Carter came down with the carom for a foul at 2.2 seconds. She only made one free throw but it was enough.
“We made enough plays,” Schaefer said. “One more than they did.”
The margin was so narrow, needing overtime to find, not because it was a well-played game on offense. The Bulldogs shot just 32%, and that was still better than A&M’s 31% with the Aggies coming down with 49 of the 94 available rebounds. Each team had 14 turnovers, which actually wasn’t so bad given that defense was intense on both ends all afternoon.
So if it wasn’t well-played, it was hard-fought the way top-twenty SEC teams ought. “This win is so huge for us,” Alwal said.
The Aggies offset their lack of accuracy because they had Walker. A 14.4-point scorer on average, the junior guard dominated the first half with 19 points and finished with 25…which was how many shots she had to take to make seven. What Walker did better was draw fouls and make 10-of-10 at the stripe.
Forward Courtney Williams added 14 points, just under her average, with 4-of-16 shooting. If having two players take 41 of the team’s 55 shots seemed much, “You’re having to guard two pro players,” Schaefer said. And foul a lot in the process.
State’s own offensive issues, once Vivians picked up the second and third personals, came from A&M’s length and quickness everywhere. Perimeter openings were closed quickly; inside Vivians, Richardson, even Alwal at times tried to finesse layups in fear of blocks, mostly missing.
Yet despite using substitutes most of the second ‘quarter’ before halftime State was only down four at intermission. The second half was much more fragile, largely because both team fouled lots and A&M was better at the stripe. The Bulldogs had their chances, missing nine of 20 though and trailing as much as seven.
Fortunately for them Walker lost her touch and William, shortest Dog in the house, rose to the challenge. “Coach always tells me no one can stop me,” said the 5-5 (maybe) guard. “If the post player isn’t going to be open, I’m just going to go.”
Three times she did, each producing an unlikely looping layup in taller traffic for a 50-49 lead. Texas A&M got back ahead and were up by three at two minutes. Alwal got to a rebound and was fouled making one of two.
A frenetic sequence of two turnovers, two fouls, and a missed shot later State had the ball back. Kendra Grant somehow was left alone out-top, a spot A&M had guarded very well all day. Her on-the-line jumper at 1:12 tied things up, and State could have won it in regulation.
This play didn’t develop, William had to force a long three that missed with 21 ticks left. The Aggies used timeouts to set up Williams for a long shot that was also off forcing the overtime. Twice A&M led by four in the extra period, and they fouled out Dog defensive ace Dominique Dillingham on the opening play.
Still the home team had enough left to rally, with the ten overtime points scored by five Dogs. Three Aggies fouled-out and three more had four personals at the end. For State, Dillingham and Grant fouled-out. Superior depth likely saved this day for the home team. Alwal finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds for a 33rd career double-double, while William had 15 points.Blair flatly proclaimed the Bulldogs are now in the NCAA Tournament on the strength of eight conference wins. Schaefer didn’t go that far himself though he did call it a “NCAA game” played in the regular season. He does like the season’s trending too. “It gets us to 8-3, gives us a chance to have a bye in the SEC Tournament.”
This win is even bigger in that sense because State still must go to #11 Kentucky (Feb 12) and #1 South Carolina (Feb 26) among the remaining five league games. Beating A&M was in many ways a must, but it does set the stage for even bigger things before tournament time.
“And we’ve still got a lot left,” said Schaefer.