“I don’t want it to be a close game. I want to beat them by 20!”
Margin actually is not as much on MSU minds, as simply taking care of Sunday business. The #4-ranked Bulldogs (24-1, 10-1) are visiting Ole Miss (14-9, 4-7) Sunday, with a 3:00 tip at the Pavilion. This rematch completes the annual home-and-home rivalry set, after Mississippi State took a 73-62 victory at home in January.
If William or any veteran Bulldog has to take a winning shot this year, it will be in a different venue. Two years ago it was in Smith Coliseum where the home team gave Mississippi State all a Dog could handle and more.
Not until backup point guard William stuck the clutch shot could State escape 64-62. Ever since William has heard about her heroics.
“It was my freshman year so hitting a shot like that, they remind me every time I did that.” Coach Vic Schaefer doesn’t need reminding, much. What became this year’s national contender was just beginning to take shape, and beating the rival on their court was one serious stepping stone.
“It was back and forth, we found a way to get one stop,” Schaefer recalled. “It was a tie game, I think 12 seconds. Some coaches call a timeout, but if you have playmakers you let your kids. And my playmaker made a play.”
This was before William became the quarterback, a process needing two seasons. Now as a junior she is not only lead-Dog on both offense and defense, she is one of the rising point guard stars of the country. Just this week she was named to the 19-player watch list for the Dawn Staley Award given to the land’s best guard. This while sharing the backcourt with All-American and classmate Victoria Vivians, remember. Close observers of this team even suggest William is the most valuable player for 2017.
William certainly has made her mark in this rivalry. In five meetings so far she has averaged 12.6 points and made 19 of 27 shots. It’s a rate that makes her the women’s hoops version of Chris Relf or something against Rebel teams.
Past isn’t necessarily prediction, of course. “It’s a different year and I want to win the next one,” William said. Win by a lot more margin if possible, and extend State’s streak in the series to seven.
William has no memory of the bad, very bad, old days in this rivalry. It began with Ole Miss winning 48 of 49 meetings and only began turning for good in 1998. It is Schafer who has completed the transition. This will never be mistaken for an Egg Bowl of course.
“It’s a game that means a lot to a lot of people,” Schaefer said. Then, trying to keep from fanning any flames, “To us it’s the next one on the schedule. And we’ve done a really good job staying focused on the next one.”
True enough. When playing for a championship the only approach is one-at-its-time. With Mississippi State and South Carolina even in the loss column there is no margin for a late-season stumble. Even then the Bulldogs still need a helping hand elsewhere as the Gamecocks hold the direct tiebreak.
So, William said, “Just one game at a time right now. Just focusing on Sunday, and Thursday after that.” At the same time the junior understands by now that some games naturally make for fiercer focus.
This one definitely does for Dogs.
“Each year you see how big a deal it is. All the Mississippi State fans come to Oxford and want us to go out there and demolish them. So it’s a big deal.”
It’s becoming a bigger deal for Lady Rebel teams too. Though still paying a price for previous regime sins that has made for a tough rebuild, the Ole Miss program is back on a better track. In danger of being blown out back on January 16 in the Hump after a 22-8 first quarter, the visitors didn’t roll over and even out-scored State in the second and fourth periods.
“They never stop fighting,” said William. So, “We can’t let them know they can play with us. We got to a big lead and relaxed and they came back.”
Schaefer isn’t concerned his club could relax too much today. “You don’t typically have to get anyone’s attention for this one. And our goals, what we have in front; t’s the next one, it’s on the road, it’s a SEC game. We have to be ready to play well.”