#11 Ladydogs Challenge #2 South Carolina

If the matchup itself weren’t challenging enough, just getting to the game site has already tested the Lady Bulldogs. Fortunately Vic Schaefer and squad are turning their altered travel schedule to as best advantage as possible, before a showdown with league-leading South Carolina.

#11-ranked Mississippi State got a jump on the advancing weather, arriving Tuesday in Columbia for Thursday’s 6:00 contest (FSN telecast). So instead of the routine practice schedule, the Ladydogs had a quick campus session yesterday. Now they have all Wednesday for a full practice and scouting session. There’s a lot to scout, of course.

South Carolina comes into their home game ranked #2 nationally, their lone loss to current #1 Connecticut. That showdown was in Stoors and at the time the rankings were reversed. Since then the Gamecocks (26-1, 14-0) have continued their perfect SEC season, and took Monday’s all-important showdown with Tennessee 71-66 in Columbia.

So South Carolina only needs beat State or win Sunday at Kentucky to lock up the league title and secure first seed at the SEC Tournament. The Gamecocks are already certain to host NCAA Regional play.

Mississippi State’s ambitions are not quite that high now but quite high all the same. At 10-4 SEC the Bulldogs (25-4) are still trying to lock-up one of the opening round byes for next weekend. Staying in that elite quartet only improves NCAA seeding status as well, though as of now most believe hosting in the NCAAs is unlikely. The same pre-SEC schedule that allowed this team to build up wins, confidence, and cohesion also means a RPI somewhere either side of #30 these days.

But, upsetting South Carolina and making a deep run in Little Rock could jump State right into the thick of any siting debate. Either way, “We’ve got a lot left, a lot of basketball in front of us,” Schaefer agrees. But, “We can’t get caught up in all of that.”

Risk of distraction is an acceptable price for State’s success this breakthrough season. If play ended today this team would already own records for most overall and SEC victories alike. Schaefer, who supports continued talk of hosting even if that too can distract, has other numbers of note.

“We’re two free throws away from being 12-2 (SEC). We’re 4-3 against the top-fifty RPI. And we’re 9-3 on the road.”

Two of those losses have been at the other league elite, Tennessee and Kentucky. Now Mississippi State gets one more shot at winning on a top-tier team’s court. Though, South Carolina looks superior to the rest. Schaefer figures had the Gamecocks been hosting Connecticut they would be unbeaten and still ranked first.

“Obviously you’re going in and playing a great team. They’re a big, physical, really athletic team.” Not just that but a deep squad per Schaefer. “It’s not necessarily who they start but who they bring off the bench sometimes.”

If that part sounds similar to how Mississippi State is succeeding…correct. The Bulldogs are as deep as any club in the country too. It isn’t simply that Schaefer can spell his starters, but the subs are usually alternates. State rarely skips a beat when changing personnel.

Even better, the non-starters sometimes are better performers pending their matchups. In most programs guard Morgan William, guard/forward Kendra Grant, forward Ketera Chapel and others would be starters. At State they are always ready for immediate action off the bench and down the stretch.

So there are nine Dogs playing double-digit minutes, and only one averaging double-digit points. “I feel like the ringleader of the circus sometimes,” joked Schaefer. “I’m trying to wear the top hat and get them in the right spot.”

There’s not much doubt who draws the spotlight though. Guard/forward Victoria Vivians seems past the inevitable mid-freshman-year slump and back on the fast track. She’s averaging 14.9 points on the season and 13.5 in SEC play. Vivians also seems to love the big stage, having scored 17 at Tennessee and an amazing 39 at Kentucky in double-overtime.

“Victoria is focused on winning,” Schaefer said. “When the lights go on she’s going to have a good day.”

That bit about only one Dog averaging double-digit points? It’s true for the entire season. But senior center Martha Alwal raises her own game in SEC play for 11.1 points, on 56% shooting. Her overall average was limited by early-season recovery from injury of course, and Alwal has only been full-speed for league play. It’s the ideal time, obviously.

Forward Breanna Richardson has developed into more than a complementary body to Alwal, she’s a force in her own right. Chapel can play either frontcourt spot as well with Chinwe Okorie giving better minutes in relief work. Out at the point there can’t be a more dynamic tag-team than starter Jerica James with William instantly on call.

This is a very good team, as the ranking affirms, and getting better. The next step is to not only be ranked in the elite but to beat those peers. Certainly Mississippi State expects such shots next week on a neutral floor.

But nothing would announce a team has arrived like winning in a title team’s house. Schaefer figures the experience at Tennessee and Kentucky should help. “The biggest thing you better draw from it is the competitive and physical nature of the games,” he said.

“I think our kids will be excited about it, I know my staff and I are. A tremendous challenge but we’ve been in in this environment before and know what it takes.”

The Bulldogs close out the regular schedule at home this Sunday, hosting rival Ole Miss.

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