Obviously, yes. Shaking up the starting five and subsequent rotations worked very fine indeed, as Mississippi State routed Troy 110-69. The #2-seed Bulldogs (30-4) opened their NCAA Tournament with a program post-season record for both points and rebounds, as well as reached the thirty-win mark for first time ever.
State advances to Sunday’s second round meeting with #7 seed DePaul, a 88-67 winner over Northern Iowa in the earlier game. Tipoff time was to be set after all Friday NCAA action ended.
For a team on all sorts of record paces, switching up a winning lineup in this all-or-nothing situation was not simple. It was obvious to the fifth-year coach though.
“I never had any second thought about doing it. There’s just some things that have to be done,” said Schaefer, without much further explanation.
If the changes caught everyone else by surprise—the regular lineup was listed right up to tipoff in fact—the Bulldogs themselves knew. Practices leading up to Friday’s first round keyed them in. Without, though, tensing anyone up.
“We play together and mix up together a lot in practice,” junior guard Blair Schaefer said. “So when an opportunity presents itself in the game it’s nothing new.”
The younger Schaefer certainly seized opportunity as a new starter. She scored a career-high and game-leading 21 points, including the first 11 points on State’s side of the scoreboard with three made treys in the process. This, after being so ill with stomach cramps Thursday as to be unable to practice.
“My shots were just falling,” Schaefer said. “I was told my window wouldn’t be very big. So I took my window.”
So did the other new starting guard as Roshunda Johnson added 13 points. “They were really special today,” Coach Schaefer said. “Blair and Ro were really outstanding, they shot the ball well, they shared the ball with each other.” They also combined for seven treys as State had a good day at the arc, 12-of-22 with many of the misses long after the game was secured.
The most obvious change was not seeing All-SEC guard and national player of the year candidate Victoria Vivians on court at tipoff. Or not until well into the second quarter. Coach Schaefer gave no direct reasoning for keeping State’s leading scorer out of action so long. Vivians would only play 16 minutes in fact.
Instead Schaefer only made references to effort and consistency, whether games or practices. “You have to find a way to keep an edge,” he did say. Besides, “We scored 110 points, it’s hard not to be pleased with the offense.”
The Trojans naturally expected the standard State lineup and gameplanned accordingly, especially for Vivians. “That threw us behind the eight-ball,” Troy Coach Chanda Rigby said, adding “We should have kept the gameplan the same.” Because when the Trojans played away from Schaefer, she made them pay.
Vivians did get 13 points in her minutes, hitting a quick trey moments after subbing in and two more longballs on the day with six rebounds. Schaefer made one other change as well, but this was for real game-thinking reasons. Alternate center Teaira McCowan got to start, so usual starter Chinwe Okorie could avoid early foul troubles.
This too worked out well as the taller and faster McCowan finished with nine points, 13 rebounds, and four blocked shots including some transition swats. Which was key.
Troy, a full-time transition team that substituted at almost every stop of the clock, schemed to take a shot on average in seven seconds. Mississippi State never truly slowed the Trojans. What the Dogs did was force a lot of those fast shots to come in the wrong spots or by the wrong shooters.
The Trojans ended up just 31% from the field and 5-of-31 at the arc with three of those threes coming in the late minutes. Just as key to Schaefer was getting to the misses. “They’re going to chuck it and go get it. So we had to put a butt in a gut.” That 61 rebounds resulted, and Troy helped out with 28 turnovers as well.
“Knowing transition is something they do, we had to get back,” Johnson said.
Mississippi State did not just run away with the day. It was only a 27-21 lead after one quarter as Troy’s transition did almost match the points pace. The second period settled things. Schaefer, with 13 first-period points, didn’t score in the second. Senior and also surprise non-starter forward Breanna Richardson and Vivians did with eleven combined points, as well as their work on both backboards.
Troy also paid when their substitution sequence, and a hurt shoulder to Jackson native Jayla Chillis, had the team’s three leading scorers off the floor in the crucial stretch. The Bulldogs went on a 10-0 tear and got to a season-high 56 points at halftime.
The Trojans could not slow their style in the second half regardless of growing margin. This played right to the strengths of most other bench Bulldogs. Guard Ameshya Williams managed 15 points in just nine minutes to further expand the margin. Richardson added ten points with nine boards.
Troy’s Claresa Banks had a team-best 15 points and Amber Rivers 11. No Trojan played more than 22 minutes, and of the fifteen who got on the court only one had less than six minutes.
“It was a fantastic experience to come compete here at Mississippi State,” Rigby said as her team ended the season 22-11. “It wasn’t want we wanted but we’re proud of what we were able to accomplish. We lost to a very good team, I hope they make it all the way.”
Coach Schaefer knows to go much farther this NCAA Tournament will mean cleaning-up some things. State scored 110 points despite shooting just 44%, as McCowan and Okorie were a combined 5-of-15 directly under the goal. Too many point-blank shots by all Dogs rimmed off the home iron for comfort, making outside shooting that much more important in the first half. State was also just 26-of-39 at the foul line.
They could afford these lapses against a #15 NCAA seed. Sunday is another matter. DePaul may only be seeded a #7 but in their win the Blue Demons looked ready for any challenge. They riddled UNI with eleven treys, moved the ball crisply, and ran the court as well as Troy did later.
Schaefer and staff were scouting from courtside, and “I had to leave in the third quarter, I was making myself sick. We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
The coach also has to decide if Friday’s lineup remains in force, or does he go back to the rotations which won 29 times before. Schaefer did say he isn’t concerned over Vivians’ reaction to not starting for the first time as a collegian.
“She’s going to be ready when the lights come on. I don’t worry about here as much as everybody seems to.”
Besides, Johnson said, “It doesn’t matter who starts. It’s how we play if we come off the bench or start.”
Sunday’s winner advances to Oklahoma City for the sweet 16 round starting March 24.