Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

Mississippi State Takes Highest-Ever Ranking on Road

The Lady Bulldog road show has been a smash hit at every stop so far. Now it rolls into Hattiesburg for the next date.

#5-ranked Mississippi State visits Southern Mississippi for Saturday’s 2:00 tipoff in Green Coliseum. Fans should notice that this is a time change from the original 4:00 start. Not that moving everything up a couple of hours should impact atmosphere for the in-state matchup.

“They’ll be excited about playing Big Sister,” Coach Vic Schaefer said.

While this won’t set well with the home team, there isn’t much argument who is the big Dog these days. Mississippi State takes an 8-0 record back on the road, as well as the program’s highest-ever ranking.

The climb into top-five status came after an overtime thriller at Iowa State where a short-handed State squad battled back from 17 points down in the first half to force extra the extra inning. An 85-81 final affirmed a team worthy of #5 this week.

And yet, “I think our best basketball is in front of us,” Schaefer said.

A bold comment. But likely true, as the Bulldogs haven’t put on a complete performance yet. Not even in beating then-#8 Texas in the only home game; or knocking off Oregon in Hawaii, or any other victory to date.

So Saturday is State’s next chance to round-out the show. And, another addition to the mega-miles already accumulated since opening the schedule in Maine. Schaefer gambled on a veteran-dominated lineup and better depth when booking 11 of the first 12 games at either hostile or neutral sites.

Thus far the Bulldogs have come up winners at every test. Speaking of which, fall finals end today. The practice schedule has been convoluted at best this week and Schaefer admits focus has been hampered. Here, too, loading everyone on a bus can help keep a club sharp this time of year. “School is out anyway. We might as well get on the road. So it really works out good,” Schaefer said.

“Now, we’re playing some really good teams. And when you have that #5 on your chest people are going to give you their best shot. The thing I’m excited about is our kids take it.” And, give back better.

While this is clearly a big vs. little sister matchup, the Lady Eagles aren’t without ammo. At 7-1 they have confidence, and some veterans of last year’s 78-65 loss in Humphrey Coliseum.

“They have a couple of kids back that hurt us,” Schaefer said. “They’re shooting well from the three, and several kids have impressive numbers out there. And they have good quickness.”

Southern Miss even has a little history on their side, though it is mostly old now. They lead the series 22-21 still…yet just about all the wins came over a quarter-century ago. Since 1992 Bulldog teams are 15-6 against Southern, and State has won eight of the last nine meetings since 2007.

Mississippi State should have strong support away from home too. Local and Coast area fans will be in the gym and even have tailgating functions planned for pre-game. Though, Schaefer warns, this can also invigorate the home team almost as much as the chance to knock off a top-five visitor.

“Southern Miss will be waiting in the weeds for us, and we have to be ready to play.”

A key piece probably won’t be ready. State had to play at Iowa State without heart-and-guts guard Dominque Dillingham, recovering from minor knee surgery. Schaefer can’t predict her status for Saturday or upcoming games, and Dillingham’s absence is an obvious reason Bulldog defense struggled last time out.

Or it did until guard Morgan William (11.9ppg) cranked it up in the second half, to go with her all-game direction of the offense. Her perimeter presence at each end has been as key to the entire team’s success as anything closer to the goal(s). “The longer the game goes the stronger she seems to get,” said Schaefer.

The longer big-guard Victoria Vivians (14.6ppg, 13 threes) plays the college game, the more attention she gets. The junior was named this week to both the Wooden and Wade watch lists for top player in the nation. And as her 42% shooting, 33% at the arc, shows Vivians’ best is also still ahead this season.

But the Bulldog offense doesn’t have to live on Vivians’ outside shooting this season. Redshirt guard Roshunda Johnson (10.4ppg, 16 treys) has been exactly the addition needed. Johnson took Dillingham’s starting spot at Iowa State and gave 15 points in 30 minutes.

At the same time the frontcourt is coming up literally bigger now. Forward Ketara Chapel came off the bench for some of the biggest Bulldog clutch plays in support of starters Breanna Richardson and Chinwe Okorie. This versatility makes Mississippi State an even tougher matchup…

…but also comes with some risks. Schaefer said having ten Dogs averaging double-digit minutes does impact the defensive chemistry. Getting Dillingham back ought to fix most of this though.

The road show heads west next week. State visits Arkansas-Little Rock on Tuesday, then plays a pair of tournament games at Southern California on the 16th and 18th.

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