Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

Mississippi State will take on Connecticut tonight in the NCAA Women's Final Four.

DALLAS, TX - On Thursday, players from Connecticut were asked questions about Mississippi State. While there were the standard comments about respect and this season being a much different one than a year ago, by and large there was a real sense that the Huskies have not thought a lot about the Lady Bulldogs until recently.

To be fair, who could blame them? UCONN coaches and players had banners to hang, rings to polish and another National Title to defend.

On the other side of the ledger, the Bulldogs have thought a lot about Connecticut and rightfully so. The last time the two teams met, Mississippi State wound up on the business end of a 60 point decision, 98-38.

To put that historic Sweet Sixteen margin into the proper perspective, Coach Vic Schaefer's team only tallied double digit points in one quarter, the fourth. In that final period, with the game long decided, State outscored the Huskies 18-14.

Nobody printed a bumper sticker.

Mississippi State fans were eager to see how their team would measure up against the greatest women's college basketball program in history. The early returns in that contest stung.

When the first quarter ended, UCONN led 32-4.

"If you watch that game, Stewy (Breanna Stewart), looked like an NBA player playing against high school kids," said Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma. "Moriah (Jefferson) was so much better than anybody on the floor. And (Morgan) Tuck just dominated long stretches of the game. So the score was like 30-4 at the end of the first quarter. I think Lou (Katie Lou Samuelson) had one bucket. I don't think Kia (Nurse) had any. The other guys didn't even play."

Mississippi State has watched the game. In fact, they have watched it several times. How could they forget?

When the Bulldogs needed a reminder of how their season ended, all they needed to do was look around their training facility to see the number 60 hanging on the wall as a constant symbol of the work required to take the next step as a program.

"Yeah, we have watched the film a lot," Mississippi State senior guard Dominique Dillingham said. "After we played them last year, we watched it a lot, before the season even started, just to remind you how fast the game can get away from you.

"I think it taught us we have to compete each and every possession, take it one possession at a time. If you take it from there, it will be fine."

At times, the Bulldogs looked to be in awe of Connecticut and the mystique that follows them on to the women's basketball court. The loss to the ghosts of NCAA Championships past provided a turning point.

"After the game, it's kind of like a reality check as a team, as a whole," Mississippi State point guard Morgan William said. "I feel like going into pre-season workouts and stuff, you really just wanted to work your butt off, develop more as a player, like number one, two and three draft picks. We had a lot to work on, and it was an honor to play against them. That season, I just really wanted to work hard and get back to this point."

The Bulldogs' head man, Schaefer, admits that the outcome of that contest left a mark. While Mississippi State fans still held a lot of pride in the steps their Bulldogs had made, most would rather not talk about the day they paired up with the eventual National Champs.

"I mean, when you get beat 60, it's embarrassing," Schaefer said. "I think the big thing we learned that day was the speed of the game. They were Speedy González fast. They were really fast. We walked into the gym that day with six players in walking boots, and it looked like we still had 'em on when we were playing.

"It was a humbling, embarrassing experience for all of us. I think that's the big thing you learn, is the speed of the game."

With those painful lessons learned, Mississippi State is ready to try UCONN on for size once again. This time, the stage is grander and the stakes higher. For the Bulldogs, it is time to show how far they have come since last season's defeat.

Are the Bulldogs ready for prime time?

"This is not the same Mississippi State team we played," Auriemma said. "The turnaround they've made offensively has been remarkable. They're still the same defensive team that they were. And we're not the same team by any stretch of the imagination."

When the basketball is tossed skyward at 9:06 tonight, the Bulldogs will be eager to show their counterparts just how far they have come in twelve months.

"I feel like we've grown as a team since last year. We're better overall," William said. "I feel like we're in better condition to go out there and compete. Last year, I feel like we was a little timid to go out there, and it showed. This year I feel a little different vibe in the locker room, practice, that we can go out there and compete with them."

The task for the Bulldog coaching staff will be to keep their squad in the moment and playing the team on the floor rather than the eleven NCAA championship banners hanging in the rafters of Gampel Pavillion in Storrs, Connecticut.

"Last year I talked about it a lot," Scahefer said of the UCONN tradition. "This year, you know, we're trying to treat it just like another business trip. This team has been really good on the road. We spent most of non-conference on the road. We only had three home games. So this team has done a great job of going on the road and being businesslike.

"It wouldn't matter if you were playing Connecticut on the road, home, or here at the Final Four. You're still dealing with a well-oiled machine that is well-coached, has great players, and they're always going to play great."

The Bulldogs path to Dallas and the Final Four has not been paved with upsets and the easier softer road. State has earned their place at the table by defeating conference champions and some of the nation's elite programs and players.

Round One brought the back-to-back Conference-USA tournament champs, Troy. State bested Big East regular season champion Depaul in Round Two.

A Sweet Sixteen victory over Washington and Kelsey Plum, the most prolific scorer in the history of women's college basketball, set the stage for the Oklahoma City Regional final win for State over Big 12 Champion and national power Baylor.

Now in the third and final weekend of the NCAA Women's basketball tournament, the Bullldogs will look to topple the biggest champion of all, defending National Champion UCONN, and end their record 111 game winning streak.

"We have to come out and play comfortable," Mississippi State star Victoria Vivians said. "Last year, we got down fast. I feel like coming into the game Friday, let it speak for itself. Let us see what we do, what they do."

The Bulldogs will be hanging some newly printed banners of their own in Humphrey Coliseum next season. Of equal importance to the state ladies is a sign they are ready to take down, the one they have seen everyday for a year that simply says "60".

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