Three decades of frustrations vanished in an overtime instant as the Lady Bulldogs took a 65-63 victory. It was the first success after 36 previous losses, which only made everything sweeter.
As did rallying from a double-digit deficit through three quarters just to force overtime, too. “Just keep fighting,” said surprise offensive leader Dominque Dillingham. “It gives us a lot of confidence going forward. And winning in overtime, too.”
Coach Vic Schaefer agreed. “To do it the way we did it today, really makes it special.”
The win improved #13 State to 18-4 and 5-3 SEC. #19 Tennessee left 12-8 and 3-4. It was the first meeting of these teams where the Bulldogs carried the higher ranking, and victory does much to boost their chances of hosting NCAA Tournament play.
While Mississippi State was making program history, it was also the first-ever win for Schaefer against Tennessee at any of his coaching stops, including Arkansas and Texas A&M. “It’s just a heck of a win,” he agreed, but added “Y’all made a big deal about the 36 games. We didn’t talk about it. These kids didn’t know anything about it.”
Actually, players had to know, if not from media then promotion efforts to get out a Thursday night crowd. Some 5,710 did turn out and they got to see, yes, history. Dramatics, too after a third quarter which ought have left the Bulldogs for dead.
Having forced a 33-33 halftime tie on a buzzer-beating trey, the Volunteers all but won the evening in the third period. They made seven of the first ten shots, while State was missing 13 of 14 and going only 4-of-20 for the quarter. Tennessee owned the glass at each end and forced the pace both ways, building a 49-37 lead.
“I thought we played good enough to win. We just couldn’t finish the deal,” UT Coach Holly Warlick said.
For Schaefer it almost seemed the deal was sealed at 55-43 going into the last quarter. “Basically we were on life support,” he said.
Actually, the life was in State’s huddle. Never mind the score, “Any game we go to overtime, I think we’re going to win,” Dillingham said. “Just we needed to pick it up on defense. We had to get stops to get back in the game.”
Those stops came when Schaefer went against his gameplan and character and changed to matchup zone defense. It was mostly a case of just trying something, anything, he admitted, to slow down the taller, longer Vols.
“The third quarter we were awful. But fourth quarter, you saw us play ten minutes of matchup and that’s about as much as we played all year long. We had to stop that dribble penetration. And they made one basket.” Tennessee was 1-of-8 in that period.
The zone also took some strain off State legs. It showed most with guards Dillingham and Morgan William as they drove and moved for eleven fourth-quarter combined points. The other four came from forward Victoria Vivians, harassed all evening by a rotation of Volunteers and forced farther from the goal than even she likes shooting.
Vivians tied it 58-58 with free throws at 1:54, and with the same score had a shot to win it in regulation. Not a good shot as William had used up most of the time looking for an opening and Vivians had to one-hand heave it from the corner. The miss meant overtime.
Twice State led by three in OT (Tennessee had a brief one-point advantage). The last was when William made a gutsy move and jumper at 1:05 for a 65-62 score. After Tennessee cut it to a basket with a free throw William had the ball again, only to get blocked by Bashaara Graves at 0:17.
That should have sufficed for a quality shot. Instead William forced Te’a Cooper down the left side of the lane. The layup attempt was high and banked-back where State center Chinwe Okorie slapped it back towards the foul line.
There Vivians collided with UT’s Jordan Reynolds, each going for the ball and neither gaining it. Nor did anyone else as the officials backed away and let everything play-out undisturbed.
Maybe the real surprise was so many starting Dog had energy left to celebrate for 15 minutes on court. Dillingham had played 43 of the 45 minutes, including the whole first half. She also was tied for leading State scorer with 14 points, choosing the right night to break out of a shooting slump and go 6-of-13.
“I had a lot of open looks in the zone,” Dillingham said. “And I practice a lot of those shots, so I’m comfortable out there.” She also came away with six rebounds and two steals and even a block, but Schaefer saw Dillingham’s biggest stat as three.
That’s how many charges the 5-9 guard took from bigger Vols under the goal, bouncing up every time to get back on offense as the minutes added up. “That’s my gauge, she’s that warrior for us,” Schaefer said.
Vivians also had 14 points, on 4-of-16 shooting and 1-of-8 at the arc. But often Vivians was the only Dog able to create a shot against Tennessee’s long-and-wide defense. Vivians worked for seven rebounds with a block. William had eleven points and seven assists playing 40 minutes at the point under pressure, and Okorie added ten points and eight boards.
Tennessee was led by Reynolds with 15 points, while Andraya Carter and Cooper had eleven apiece. After shooting 55% through three periods the Vols fell apart in the fourth. Even their defense became passive, perhaps tired of both body and spirit.
The Bulldogs, just the opposite. “I do think in the fourth quarter we finally started to smell some success,” Schaefer said.
Humphrey Coliseum reeked of that aroma after overtime. Because history had been made and that embarrassing 0-for forever erased.
And, “It’s not just winning the game,” Schaefer said. “It’s how we won the game.”