Naturally so. Because the next one for Mississippi State is the one any Bulldog, any sport, any regular season wants most to win. Come 6:00 tipoff Monday, the #4-ranked Lady Bulldogs get another chance to beat the rival as Ole Miss comes to Humphrey Coliseum.
“It’s a heck of a rivalry and there’s not much middle ground,” native Texan and fifth-year Bulldog coach Schaefer said. “I grew up in another rivalry, in another state. And it doesn’t hold a candle to this one.”
It needs remembering that Schaefer can’t recall times when Mississippi State couldn’t hold a candle to the Lady Rebels. The rivals won 49 out of the first 50 meetings, save for a November 1980 exception.
Not until 1999 did the situation change…entirely. Now Mississippi State has won 27 of the last 38 games, nine of the last 11. As for Schaefer? He is 6-2 against Ole Miss with a five-win streak coming into Monday’s matchup.
Oh, and his four previous teams never dropped a home game to visiting Rebel bands.
But as the saying goes there can always be a first time. So Schaefer and current squad are intent on defending the home floor. All the more so since a victory will give these Bulldogs (18-0, 4-0 SEC) both the longest-ever winning streak by MSU women as well as extend their already-best-ever SEC start.
“They’ve got a chance to set another record,” Schaefer said. “That in and of itself makes the game important.
“Now, you add that it’s Mississippi, it will add a little extra to the environment. So I want our kids to enjoy that. This is what college athletics are all about.”
A resurgent Rebel team is doing its part to fan the rivalry flames. Ole Miss arrives 13-4 and 2-2 SEC after knocking off Tennessee at home Thursday. Coach Matt Insell has his team playing with confidence and himself isn’t shy about setting his sights on current state powerhouse State.
As for the Bulldog viewpoint? “I’m not a Mississippi kid,” said junior point guard Morgan William. “But something about playing Ole Miss, they get up for us. It’s fun, it’s hyped!”
Mississippi State doesn’t need hype. The Bulldogs are real, and settled in at #4 nationally this month. Last Sunday’s gritty win at Tennessee, another program-first, affirmed the ranking again. Then Schaefer’s squad took care of Florida in dominating style, and in only their fifth home game of the season so far.
Already SEC and NCAA observers are looking to the January 23 showdown of the league’s co-leaders when State visits South Carolina. But…the Bulldog coach has to keep his team focused on the immediate. Coming down from the first-ever Knoxville win to thump Florida was a good sign.
“I liked our focus. Our kids have done a great job going one at a time.”
Then again, this next one is not an ordinary one. If only four Dogs are Mississippians, and one of those by recent adoption in rotation guard Blair Schaefer, they’ve still bought into this rivalry entirely. Of course Mississippi State is led by a state native and one of the best-ever. Guard Victoria Vivians come into her fifth Ole Miss meeting with a 4-0 personal record and 14.3-point average. That’s less than her current junior year scoring rate of 16.9, fifth-best in the SEC as of now.
William has scored 49 points in her four games. She’ll likely be matched up with electric Rebel guard Erica Sisk who is top-five in both SEC assists and steals.
Rebel teams are familiar with what Vivians, William, center Chinwe Okorie, forward Breanna Richardson, and others can do. What they may not be as prepared for is Schaefer’s second-team. Though reality is, State does not have a normal ‘backup’ bunch, as Tennessee and others know now. Most of this season’s alternates have started games, sometimes whole seasons, before.
Schaefer calls it replacing a ‘good with a good’ when he substitutes. Right now the goodest of the lot could be the second center, after Teaira McCowan destroyed the whole Florida front line with 25 points. She also had 14 off the bench in the Tennessee win.
With 6-5 Okorie and 6-7 McCowan a combined 24-of-31 shooting the past two games, opponents know they can’t double-up on Vivians or risk too many perimeter traps. Because William and guards can quickly get the ball inside for one-on-one matchups that the big Dogs are winning these days.
“Lots of people sell playing ten players,” Schafer said. “We’re doing it.”
Speaking of lots of people… Two of the three biggest Humphrey Coliseum crowds ever for women’s hoops were Rebel-Bulldog matchups. In March 2015 it was a 7,326 attendance; last year was just a bit smaller at 7,128.
At least, at least that many should be present for an early-evening tipoff, on a national holiday no less. The Rebel revival means there should be more visitors than in recent years as well.
All of which makes for a meaningful Monday in the Hump.
“It’s exciting. A lot of people come out for the game and it means a lot,” said William, adding “I don’t want to lose to them in my career here!”