Mississippi State is back home for Sunday’s 3:00 visit by Texas A&M. So, “We have to move on to the next one,” said senior forward Breanna Richardson.
The next one. Not the last one. The one that got away, as Mississippi State’s perfect season was finally spoiled in a three-point loss at South Carolina. Even that margin inflates how close the decision was, as the Bulldogs had two good chances at the end and others leading up to the frantic finish to pull out the showdown victory.
Instead the Gamecocks walked off their court with the SEC lead. Mississippi State (20-1, 6-1 SEC) went home to…not start over, but get back on track?
“It was definitely a hard pill to swallow because we know what we have,” junior guard Blair Schaefer said. “But we know it’s going to make us better.”
Getting better for a team that spent most of January ranked #4 nationally—and State went to South Carolina one slot higher than the hosts—is a matter of margins. Which is what Coach Vic Schaefer reminds himself and his team right now. Yes, having that first blot on the record stung, but…
“I think everybody has moved on,” Schaefer said. “I have. I had no visions of grandeur we’d go through the season undefeated. It happened.”
What did not happen, was much damage to State’s standing where it counts most. The Bulldogs might have lost inside track on the league race but they remain #4 in recognized RPI lists. That keeps State on the NCAA Tournament fast track not just for hosting opening rounds but a top overall Regional seeding.
If there are no real stumbles between now and selection day, that is. No one left on the regular schedule is likely to bring a top-ten ranking, yet several squads ahead are entirely capable of tripping up the Dogs. Beginning with these Aggies (15-5, 5-2).
“We’ve got a heck of a basketball team coming in,” said Schaefer, himself a six-season assistant in College Station before taking over at Mississippi State. “It’s a team that over the years has really been hard for us to deal with.”
Not many years since Bulldogs and Aggies have only been playing since 2011, right before SEC expansion. It’s been a better series for the Texas team with a 4-1 lead including last year’s 64-58 win in College Station.
The only Bulldog victory was two years ago at home, 63-61 in overtime. Most current State players have struggled in these all-maroon matchups, with the exception of guard Morgan William. The senior scored 15 and 18 in the last two meetings.
Four Dogs are native Texans as well, including starting guard Dominique Dillingham with alternate center Teaira McCowan, backup forward Ketara Chapel, and of course the younger Schaefer. All get at least one more shot at their home-state squad since State visits College Station on February 19.
“Those connections are forever,” Blair Schaefer said. “But when you step on the court it’s all about business.”
Coach Schaefer himself had a long connection with Aggies Coach Gary Blair, who the Bulldog boss said is “Probably doing one of the best jobs he’s done” with this team. The Aggies are a couple of slots outside the latest top-25 but are very much still in a strong SEC position. It is not a deep roster but the lineup can be formidable.
In the backcourt, one guard Danni Williams leads the league at 17.7 points; the other Curtyce Knox paces the SEC at 9.1 assists. Post Khaalia Hillsman is the second-best shooter in the conference at 63.8%. Wait, there’s more, as forward Anriel Howard is the league-leading rebounder at 11.1 per game.
“They score a lot of points in a lot of games,” Schaefer said. “They’ve got the big piece inside, and of course they can load-up with shooters on the perimeter and make it hard to help-off.”
State can’t match up on the stat sheet. But this is largely because Schaefer has, almost certainly, the deepest roster in the league or most anywhere. The post rotation of center Chinwe Okorie and alternate Teaira McCowan combine for almost 17 points per game and shoot almost equally well. Their output(s) would be even better if not for whistles, some self-inflicted and a few purely on officiating suspicions.
Keeping both available the full-forty will be one key Sunday. Getting the same sort of scoring guards William (10.7) and Dillingham (6.5) have been providing is another, spreading defenses so the posts can get solo matchups inside.
Monday saw Schaefer shift a bit from regularly rotating his guards. He liked William’s play so well the starter stayed out all evening. But Jazzmun Holmes will be back on the court in due time, and as Roshunda Johnson continues to get healthy her minutes—and contributions—will increase.
All these weapons, started or subbed, have allowed State to rely just a little less on Victoria Vivians in most games. South Carolina was another matter yet Vivians was harassed into 4-of-14 shooting. That included a shocking missed layup for the lead in the final minute.
Vivians still sets the MSU pace and is fifth in SEC scoring at 16.9 points. But she’s only hitting 39.3% overall and under 31% at the arc. Schaefer won’t call it a slump.
“She’s got everybody’s attention and gets everybody’s best defender,” the coach. But, “We probably need to take a little strain off of her.”
No Dog wants to think having their 20-win streak end will reduce upcoming strains. State will be just as big a target as ever, and after A&M is a trip to upstart and dangerous Auburn. Still Schaefer hopes a midweek break was a chance to regroup, evaluate the first loss without emotion and get back to winning.
Besides, “You realize you’ve got a pretty good team,” Schaefer said. “When you play like the other night, you’re going to be in every game.”