Teaira McCowan (Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page)

Revised Lineups, Rotations Fuel Bulldog Momentum for Sweet 16

Fears of a frigid Bulldog offense going into NCAA Tournament time? Yeah. Consider it all melted in the glare of sizzling scoreboards.

Mississippi State evaporated such post-season concerns in their first NCAA weekend with two high-scoring victories. Which, of course, advance the Bulldogs to a second weekend at the Oklahoma City Regional.

“Hopefully we’re getting hot at the right time,” Coach Vic Schaefer said. “This is the right time of the year to get hot.”

Right time indeed. Mississippi State (31-4) moves on to the NCAA’s “Sweet 16” round and a Friday matchup with…well, that name gets filled-in tonight. #3 regional seed Washington is hosting #6 Oklahoma in an 8:05ct matchup. The survivor faces State in one-half of the OKC Regional, with game time either 6:00 or 8:30ct depending on who fills out the four-team field.

While the first two rounds saw the usual quota of miss-matches and blowouts, no squad put on a more impressive offensive show than did the Bulldogs. Not only did they score 202 total points in NCAA play; they did it against a couple of quality clubs. State whipped Troy 110-69, then DePaul 92-71.

Scoring over 200 points in consecutive games, a program record by the way, at any point of a season is notable. Doing it in the post-season? That defines hot. It also counters concerns that Schaefer’s squad had run out of scoring steam at the end of their schedule.

The coach clearly had heard the critics. “Somebody said on some telecast we might not be able to do what we did today,” Schaefer said Sunday.

Nobody was denying these Dogs are a quality club. The best-ever at Mississippi State, too, having set the season record for victories at 29 already. Or that State had the star-power to play with any opponent.

What caused concerns and thus criticisms was offensive frustrations down the schedule-stretch. Starting in mid-February the Bulldogs averaged just 66 points in the final eight games. In the SEC Tournament it was only 64 points, bottoming-out with a 49-point output in the finals against South Carolina.

Scoring was down. Overall shooting was way down. And three-point shooting was even worse. How was Mississippi State going into NCAA play with any momentum and confidence?

Schaefer didn’t doubt. He did bristle a bit at the idea he wasn’t worried. Or as the coach said Sunday, he wasn’t sitting around in the free week after the SEC Tournament eating bon-bons. Schaefer just fixed more focus on the scoring end of the court.

“We are very capable offensively,” Schaefer said, though adding “I have to be careful as a defensive guy. I have to do both.”

Something else needed doing as it turned out. In a do-or-done tournament, where one bad game ends everything, Schaefer shook up the lineup. In a huge way.

The tipoff team for Troy had five different names than the pre-game handout. None of them were Victoria Vivians, fresh off another All-SEC season and among the finalists for both awards given to the nation’s top college player. Junior guard Vivians was also fresh off an 8-of-30 shooting show at the SEC Tournament.

However accuracy issues do not seem the whole story to this change. A story Schaefer and squad only hint at, keeping details to themselves. Certainly shooting could not have been behind all the changes. Though only a 33% shooter in the last seven games, senior guard Dominique Dillingham is the defensive soul of the squad. Nobody could question senior forward Breanna Richardson’s scoring and rebounding.

So post-win questions came quickly; answers rarely if at all. “There were just some things that needed to be done,” Schaefer said.

Scoreboards don’t lie. Getting away from the lineup that had started the last 19 games and 26 total wasn’t the gamble most made it out to be, either. “Definitely, not crazy!” said Dillingham. “I think we have ten starters. We’re really deep.”

Deep, versatile, and much more experienced than the normal bench. Because as Schaefer often said, it isn’t a normal bench. Of the four new starters for this weekend only soph center Teaira McCowan hadn’t opened a game this year. Yet she was averaging 19 minutes alternating with senior Chinwe Okorie. This was the one change Schaefer did directly address.

“Teaira earned the start, she’s been playing well. I’ve been concerned with Chinwe getting that first foul early.” McCowan and Okorie still alternated, just in a different order; and combined for 35 points and 36 rebounds in the two wins.

Ironically the one continued starter, point guard Morgan William, ended up yielding to her own backup in a big Sunday way. When William had to have a thumb problem addressed early in the DePaul game Jazzmum Holmes took over…and took charge.

“It doesn’t matter who starts,” new-starter off-guard Roshunda Johnson said. “It’s how we play if we come off the bench or start.”

Seniors Dillingham and Richardson handled their change of status just fine. In fact both shot better than their season averages coming off the bench, and in the process Dillingham reached 1,000 career points. Richardson was key to State’s Sunday surge, taking over to open the key third quarter and turning a one-point halftime lead into a runaway.

The two obvious takeaway questions now are A) will Schaefer stick with his latest lineup whoever State draws for Friday; and B) how is Vivians handling her perceived demotion? No one could question the results of inserting junior guard Blair Schaefer into the lineup.

Not when Schaefer led State in both games with 21 and 18 points, on 12-of-21 shooting with eight three-pointers made in 15 tries. If there had been a tournament MVP, Schaefer would have won it. More impressive was how Thursday the coach’s daughter was flattened with stomach illness but bounced-back to light-up both opponents.

The younger Schaefer indirectly said everyone understood change was in the making, as leading up to Friday she and other alternates practiced in first-team maroon. So the shake-up didn’t rattle State. Vivians seemed accepting of the different role too, scoring 13 and 12 off the bench and playing some really intense defense in stretches.

“She’s going to be ready when the lights come on,” Coach Schaefer said. In the larger picture, all Dogs appear to understand the situation(s).

“Blair and Ro deserved a start, as much as me or ‘Tori,” Dillingham said. Besides, this gives Mississippi State the most potent ‘bench’ in the college game today. Though again, this is far from an ordinary bench.

“It’s just showing what we’ve worked on the past few years,” the younger Schaefer said. “As a veteran team there’s things you need to get done and our chemistry is showing. Our team is maturing in the best way possible, and at the right time.”

Growing up and getting hot at the same time, too.


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