#3-ranked Mississippi State (27-2, 13-2 SEC) hosts Tennessee in the final game of the SEC’s season.
By 4:00 tipoff for ESPN2, the Bulldogs—and for that matter their visitors—will know the exact stakes. If #7 South Carolina is able to defend the home court against #22 Kentucky in a 2:00ct game, the Gamecocks (23-4, 13-2 also) will clinch at least a share of the 2017 conference crown. Mississippi State will have to win to get the other share, though of course both will receive separate championship trophies with no ‘co’ in sight.
Should Kentucky, which edged State in a tight Thursday fight, also upset South Carolina…well, then, an unalloyed title will be up for grabs in Humphrey Coliseum and a loss will still mean a shared championship.
So even if still openly frustrated and even infuriated with how their Kentucky trip played out, Coach Vic Schaefer has been stressing focus on the finish.
“We’ve still got a lot in front of us,” Schaefer said. “Our goals are still in front of us, nothing has changed.”
A Sunday win will change program history. Since the first varsity women’s team suited up in 1975 Mississippi State has never flirted with a SEC title. Even a tie for second place last season at 11-5 was well in back of runaway winner South Carolina. And that itself was a program record for league wins.
So a true Mississippi State milestone is within sight. Within reach? That depends on getting back to the sort of form which took this team not only to either second or third in the current rankings, depending on poll preference. But also to the point of being able to earn a #1 regional seeding when the NCAA Tournament bracket is announced in mid-March.
In fact Thursday’s loss was costly for more than taking control of fate out of Bulldog hands. It left State with little margin for more losses either to end the regular schedule or in the upcoming SEC Tournament. Where, if the Dogs are seeded second, they will find themselves in the same bracket as nemesis Kentucky which just took an 11th-straight meeting. Day-after review only aggravated Schaefer more as he saw senior leader Dominque Dillingham take only one shot; and his “two headed monster” of alternate centers Chinwe Okorie and Teaira McCowan have just ten field goal attempts between them.
There was also a season-high 22 turnovers in the overtime loss. “We certainly didn’t handle some things we’re typically good at handling,” Schaefer said. “For whatever reason.”
A positive point was the return to form for star guard Victoria Vivians (17.2ppg) after an uncharacteristically slow stretch. The junior snapped-back with 25 points in a tough win last Sunday at Texas A&M; then followed it with 27 more at Kentucky. This, the coach said, is good for the entire team.
Or should be. “It gives everyone confidence when you see Victoria playing with that kind of zest and productivity,” Schaefer said. “But sometimes the rest of my team starts standing around watching. I’ve got to keep everyone involved.”
Meaning, get the post players more involved and more aggressive on offense. Also, get Dillingham looking for a few more of her shots. Not volume shots, just the selective stuff the senior can take and make when defenses ignore a 7.0-point-per guard.
In seasons past just having Tennessee (18-10, 9-6) on the same court would be involving enough. Involving if not fun because from the first meeting in 1986 through 2015 the Volunteers won all 36 meetings.
The longest drought in Dog sports history ended in January 2016 with a dramatic fourth-quarter rally and overtime win 65-63 on the Humphrey Coliseum court. In the SEC Tournament semifinals State proved it was no fluke 58-48. And this past January it became a three-win streak by a 74-64 final in Knoxville. The contest was nowhere near a double-digit difference though.
State’s margin came by hitting three clutch treys to end the first three quarters, then surviving foul troubles in the fourth period. Guard Morgan William (10.1ppg) led with 21 points and Vivians had 20 while McCowan changed the game off the bench with a 14-point, nine-board Sunday.
So this is a Bulldog bunch that has had enough success for the ‘new’ to wear off. Which might be dangerous as now Tennessee is the underdog and unhappy about it. The Vols are a thin roster and it has shown in a long season relying on seven most of the time. They are talented enough to do it even when star guard Diamond DeShields (17.2ppg) had to miss a couple of games. She is back for the regular-season finale as well.
“They’re paying well, tremendous players,” said Schaefer. “We had a knock-down drag-out at their place and I know we’re going to have another tough ball game on Sunday.”
Tough for one other reason. The winningest senior class ever at the Hump will have their official curtain call. Dillingham, Okorie, and forwards Breanna Richardson and Ketara Chapel were the core of Schaefer’s first recruiting class.
Now, “It’s hard to believe Senior Day is here,” Schaefer said. “It will be the last regular season game. I think they’ll have the chance to play here a couple more.”
Maybe that last fact, that Mississippi State is reasonably assured of hosting first-weekend NCAA Tournament play, will take some of the emotional edge off Sunday…and allow the Bulldogs to be all-business. Maybe. Hopefully.
Regardless, “We have to get ready to play,” Schaefer said. “You have to set those (emotions) aside.”