“I did,” the Bulldog guard said of her third-quarter display. “Because I didn’t feel they had an answer for anything. It was a good feeling.”
A great feeling, as Mississippi State stormed past the Blue Demons in that decisive period for a 92-71 final in Sunday’s second-round NCAA Tournament game. The #2-seed Bulldogs (31-4) advance to the Oklahoma City Regional, to face either Washington or Oklahoma on Friday.
#7-seed DePaul ended their season 27-8.
For a whole half though it was an even question whose post-season was ending. The squads played to a 17-17 tie for one quarter, and only on a defensive stop did the Dogs lead 38-37 at intermission.
But Mississippi State had absorbed the best shots DePaul could take. So in their locker room the Bulldogs could scheme up a third-quarter knockout.
“We talked about we needed to instill our will,” Blair Schaefer said. “And we really executed offensively and defensively.”
Execution was apt. In just four killer minutes the Bulldogs reeled off 14 unanswered points, transforming a 47-43 contest into a NCAA runaway. Coach Vic Schaefer was frustrated to only be up a point at halftime. The third quarter eased all anxieties.
“I was proud how we responded immediately out of the gate,” Schaefer said.
Mississippi State’s response began with getting the ball to the goal with forward Breanna Richardson and center Teaira McCowan for seven fast points. When DePaul adjusted, as best their shorter lineup could, Bulldog guards took their own shots. Twice it was Blair Schaefer, bombing in treys at 5:55 and 3:49 to push the margin into double-digits at last.
DePaul did go on a smaller and later run of their own to end the quarter with seven-straight points. But that only cut the deficit to 61-50. It also burned-up whatever energies the Blue Demons had left, as State outscored them 31-21 in the final period.
“Mississippi State is a really, really good ball club,” Coach Doug Bruno said. “They’re a #2 seed for a reason.”
Sunday’s two obvious reasons were Bulldog size, and depth. The latter mattered more for the weekend as Coach Schaefer adjusted his lineup in both games, for reasons stated or just hinted at. Changing starters and rotations resulted in 110 points for Friday.
So the same tipoff team got another start and handled business well enough against a talented tempo DePaul team playing end-to-end offense. The Demons didn’t mind matching baskets either, freeing a guard on State shots that even if made set up breakaways to the other goal. DePaul even out-shot the Dogs in the first half with four more made-treys.
The difference was State offsetting efficiency with a variety of scorers, better board work…and lots of points scored in the paint and on second chances. This was all the more true after the halftime break when Coach Schaefer ordered more direct attacks on the goal with Richardson, McCowan, and Chinwe Okorie.
“I just felt we had to go inside,” guard Jazzmun Holmes said. “It was kind of a mismatch and they could finish over smaller persons.”
Or, once DePaul tried to swarm the big Dogs, throw it back out to smaller teammates. “They (State posts) knew they had three little ones coming at them and looked at the perimeter and found the shooter,” said Blair Schaefer.
“They’re too big for us,” Bruno said. “They did a great job jamming us down low and we never came up with a solid answer. Especially with Jacqui out.” Jacqui as in Grant, the lone Demon forward in a four-guard lineup. She was tagged for a third foul at 7:20 of the second quarter, the fourth at 5:12 of the third period.
Grant finished with just three points in 12 total minutes before fouling out. Jessica January led DePaul with 18 points and nine assists, Brooke Schulte had 16 points, and off the bench Tanita Allen added 13 points.
State’s Schaefer also had 18 points, hitting all four of her team’s made treys. Long range shooting was not a priority this time as Richardson and Okorie scored 12 each. Off the bench guard Victoria Vivians scored 12 as well, all of it inside the arc this time. Holmes was the surprising contributor with 14 off the bench to go with six assists.
“It felt like high school again,” said Holmes. Coach Schaefer had subbed the taller guard in for Morgan William when the starter needed a thumb attended to. Holmes played so well, and her size gave her so many more good looks inside, that State could stay with the hot hand.
In her final home game guard Dominique Dillingham rounded out the double-digit Dogs with 10 points. She also did not start, though Dillingham did sub-in very early. As it developed no matter who Coach Schaefer sent on court good play and plays resulted.
“We executed them perfectly,” Dillingham said. “And it helped having Jazz run the team.”
By staying closer to the goal State was able to shoot 49% overall, and 16-of-29 in the second half. DePaul had to rely on long shots and on the whole it worked with 10-of-29 work. But, missing all five such attempts in the third quarter contributed to Demon downfall.
“We were taking the shots we’ve made all year,” January said. Enough were missed for State to come away with a 22-rebound advantage. Ultimately though, tactics were secondary for Coach Schaefer.
“I talked in pregame about who we are and what we’re known for. Toughness, resilience, not getting out-hustled. We really embraced that.”
Next weekend finds Mississippi State in the NCAA’s sweet 16 round for the second-straight March and third time ever. Game times will be set after all matchups are settled.