By virtue of their own record-setting league season, and a couple of recent losses by the other contender, Mississippi State now stands in front. Alone. The Bulldogs returned from Sunday’s tight win at Texas A&M with sole possession of first place at 13-1, and now 27-1 overall.
Yes, it is what they’ve worked for. But yes, there is a slight surprise factor. “I‘ve seen it coming,” forward Ketara Chapel said. “But it’s crazy how far we’ve come.”
If where the Bulldogs are is crazy, where they could be Sunday evening must seem insane.
While Mississippi State was outlasting the Aggies, co-league leader South Carolina (12-2) had already lost to Missouri. This puts the Bulldogs a clean game ahead of the Gamecock team which has the only win over State this season. So it is Vic Schaefer’s squad with the inside track to an un-shared and first-ever SEC Championship…
…if they can close out the schedule unscathed. “Now,” Schaefer said. “We have to move on and get ready for Kentucky.”
Yes. Kentucky. At #22 Kentucky, too, for Thursday’s tipoff is 6:00ct. The regular season concludes with a 4:00 home game against Tennessee, a matchup fans naturally focus on.
They shouldn’t, not yet.
Not considering Mississippi State’s super ’17 squad collides with Kentucky kryptonite tomorrow. This is the only SEC opponent Schaefer has yet to defeat in four-plus seasons. In fact the Wildcats own a ten-win streak going back to January 2010.
That includes the 83-60 rout in Humphrey Coliseum last February, which is still rather raw in Bulldog memories. “Last year wasn’t too good,” senior forward Breanna Richardson said. Nor was the most recent visit to the Lexington campus gym, a double-overtime thriller that fell the wrong way 92-90. In between was a 2015 SEC Tournament setback.
At 10-4 and 19-8 overall Kentucky is out of title contention, but can stay in third SEC place and conceivably catch South Carolina—who they play Sunday--for second which would boost their NCAA Tournament stature. Besides, Mississippi native and MSU alumnus Matthew Mitchell will have no compunctions about denying his alma mater a first-ever conference crown.
“They’ve won four in a row, are playing extremely well,” Schaefer said. “They have a great team with a lot of great ‘difference players and obviously we’ve had a hard time with them since I’ve been here.”
If one SEC name is sure to give State shivers, it is Makala Epps. Bulldog teams have been unable to contain much less control the Wildcat guard for three years already. She goes into her senior night fifth in SEC scoring at 16.9 points and eighth in assists. Epps benefits from the presence of three-point shooter Maci Morris and defensive ace Taylor Murray. Inside, forward Evelyn Akhator is among the league’s best shooters and averaging double-digit rebounds.
Oh, and Schaefer reminds, every Kat can run the floor and thrives in transition. We have to deal with another senior night, and everybody knows the track record we’ve had with Epps. So we’ve got our work cut out.”
If Mississippi State is to snap this series skid, this should be the team to do it. While there certainly is star-power and senior leadership, these Dogs don’t have to rely on just a couple of players having big games to win. Or on the home-court advantage for that matter. Other than the three-point setback at South Carolina, State has been fine in road games as Sunday reminded.
For one thing with the rise of junior guard Morgan William to prominence there are more Dogs to mix and match Kentucky’s perimeter producers. While senior guard Dominique Dillingham will of course draw the toughest defensive matchup (fill in that blank) she isn’t left on any island. Better, Jazzmun Holmes can sub-in at either backcourt spot and give good minutes at each end. Schaefer also hopes guard Roshunda Johnson’s shoulder is healthy enough to get in games earlier and for longer.
Of course all State scouting stats with Victoria Vivians. The junior isn’t having quite the offensive season expected…yet still puts in 16.8 points-per and makes defenses respect her outside/inside threat. Which, Schaefer said, is biasing a bit to the latter of late given Vivians’ arc-shooting slump.
“She sees it. Stop settling and falling in love with that 20-footer. Go drive it, get to the rim, get to the free throw line, get some rebounds.” Which Vivians did at A&M in fact. Besides, if suddenly the aim is true and the long shots are falling, so much the better.
At same time Schaefer is telling the entire backcourt to make better use of other inside options. The “two headed monster” as the coach calls his rotation of center Chinwe Okorie and Teaira McCowan is a beastly issue for most defenses. They rank third and fifth respectively in SEC shooting, for instance; as well as 11th and 13th in rebounds, inevitably taking boards away from each other. That they have ten total fouls to give is no small matter, either.
Yet here at stretch-run time it is another tag-team making noise. Richardson and Chapel play, usually, the same forward position. Richardson does have the numbers at 7.4 points and 4.5 boards, but there’s a reason. Chapel was limited much of mid-season and then struggled to find her best roles.
Suddenly it has clicked and she has been vital in tough wins over Georgia and A&M. Chapel also offers the wild-card of a three-point threat that creates serious defensive headaches; go out and cover, or stay closer to the lane?
Schaefer is openly proud of team depth which peers say is only matched by a couple of clubs in the whole nation. On top of this the squad has been seasoned with road wins and close wins and all sorts of wins settled on either end of the court.
“When you go through things like that, it gives you an experience factor.”
Of course all experience with or at Kentucky has been bad. Combine that with the great big bulls-eye State takes into the closing stretch and now a veteran team faces a new sort of challenge. Oh, and they also have the program’s highest-ever rankings; #2 in Tuesday’s USA Today Coaches poll, and still #3 in the Monday Associated Press poll which came out before their #2 Maryland lost at Ohio State.
None of which will impress a Kentucky club which only knows success against Mississippi State. So all weight would seem to be borne by Bulldog backs as they go to a venue no MSU team has won at since the oldest current Dogs were in middle school.
Yet. “I’m glad to be going in there with this group,” Schaefer said. “Because if any group can go in there and do it, it’s this group.”