Monday evening either #4 Mississippi State or #5 South Carolina will walk off the Columbia court with the SEC lead and inside track to both the league crown and a NCAA Tournament top seeding. So Vic Schaefer doesn’t even try to frame this as just another regular-season game.
“We’re on to obviously a big one,” the Bulldog coach said. “And I’m excited about that opportunity. If you’re a competitor you’re excited about these opportunities.”
While there will be plenty more opportunities on the schedule and in post-season for Mississippi State (20-0, 6-0 SEC) to get excited about…this is the one which Bulldogs know matters most. Matters most towards taking the program’s first-ever SEC title, that is. Maybe MSU doesn’t have to win this game or that championship to be a #1 seed come NCAA tourney time.
But victory Monday would stake that claim clearly. Tipoff is 6:00ct for ESPNU, as getting on national broadcast factored into SEC scheduling this for a ‘Big Monday’ meeting. Both programs have done their part to keep this a showdown meeting.
South Carolina (16-1, 6-0) has kept pace with State for first place in the league standing. Their lone loss is an inter-conference matchup at Duke. The Gamecocks are the reigning SEC champions, both regular season and tournament, and have won their last 29 conference home games.
South Carolina tuned-up with a 19-point home win over Ole Miss. That game was more notable as it saw the return of A’ja Wilson to action after an injury absence. The Gamecock star got about 15 minutes to knock off any rust and didn’t hurt her 16.1-point average too much.
Even without Wilson this is a potent offense. Five Gamecocks average double-digits in league play and most are familiar names. Painfully so to Bulldogs who recall last year’s two meetings, both won by South Carolina. The dual titles and a veteran lineup are why USC was tabbed to repeat as SEC champs and contend again for one of the four top-seed slots.
“They’re a team that has played well all year long,” Schaefer said. “Very similar to us in that they’ve had some of this team together for a while and some new pieces have added to that. But they’re so talented and disciplined. It’s going to be a tremendous challenge. There’ll be 15, 16,000 there hanging from the rafters, and won’t be any of them hollering for us.”
A year ago over 10,000 were cheering State on in a 57-51 loss to then #2-ranked USC. The SEC Tournament title game was a rematch also won by the Gamecocks 66-52. Now the Bulldogs visit a town they haven’t won in since 2010.
The twist this time is State goes on the road and into a top-five matchup with the higher ranking. Of course there have been quarters, even halves where the Bulldogs didn’t look like what a #4 team is expected to.
Yet to Schaefer, ranking has not been the pressure this month. “The 20-0 is different than the 4,” he said.
20-0 isn’t merely different, it is unprecedented at State as the program’s longest win streak of any sort. So is the 5-0 SEC start for that matter. Still “You have no idea how it is to be where they are,” said Schaefer, since the ‘0’ becomes a big bulls-eye.
Maybe this impacted a sputtering first half at Alabama. The Bulldogs turned it loose after intermission and won 67-54 but it was not an efficient show against a lower-tier host. Schaefer was glad at least his team didn’t take that trip for granted; but he’s concerned about the club comfort level here in rare air.
“The bottom line is if we go in all-tied-up Monday night, it’s all over,” Schaefer said. “We have to enjoy the opportunity and do our very best. Just do your job but know that’s enough.”
Oddly though, this game might relax some of the pressures because even ranked a notch higher the visiting team isn’t the favorite. Maybe the Bulldogs can try to create a bit of underdog mindset for the first and realistically only such regular-season chance. “They were picked in front of us,” reminds Schaefer. Still an underdog role is odd since only State and Connecticut are unbeaten in women’s hoops so far this year.
“We’ve been in the hunted role for a while,” Schaefer said. Now if not the hunter exactly, Bulldogs step onto a court on more-or-less equal terms…saving only that it is a hostile court. Here the experiences earned in hard-fought victories at Iowa State, Southern Cal, and Tennessee should serve well.
As the coach stresses, this is as much opportunity as challenge. It certainly is what the schedule-makers had in mind months ago. Now all there is to do is line them up and tip it off.
“I love watching my kids play. I love watching them compete,” said Schaefer. “And I’ll be shocked if our kids aren’t dialed-in.”