Steve Robertson

Bulldogs Try Third Time Against South Carolina in Sunday's National Title Game

The one advantage to re-matching with a team already played twice? Scouting shouldn’t take as long. With how little time and rest Coach Vic Schaefer has had since Friday night’s epochal victory, a familiar foe is at least some small favor.

That it is a South Carolina club which has already beaten Mississippi State twice in both regular season and SEC Tournament play? Well, “We've got to fix some things that we've had some issues with them over the course of two ballgames this year.”

The NCAA-provided transcript, mildly edited for space, follows:

 Q. Coach, how much sleep did you get? How much time did you actually celebrate what you accomplished, knowing you have another big one another night?
COACH SCHAEFER: Well, the sleep factor, I think I walked out of the film room at 3:21. My staff was still in there. Was up at 5:30 doing Good Morning America. Why, I don't know who watches Good Morning America at 5:30 on Saturday morning, but I did it.
Went back to the room, started watching more film, fell asleep. We've been rolling ever since.
The celebration factor, I've addressed this a couple of times with some different people. I had to go in the locker room and throw water on my kids. They're really grounded. They've been that way all year. We've had obviously some really big wins this year.
Last night, I mean, they're just, Okay, Coach, who is next? When do we play? Where? What time is the bus leaving?
That's the way they've approached it all year long. They have a real good understanding of there's another one down the line that's even bigger. It's hard to say that knowing that you just beat Connecticut, and their streak. But there is another game that's bigger than that one that gives you a chance to win a national championship.
We talked about, when we started this back in September, there were seven championships on our schedule. We won four of 'em. We've lost out on two, the regular season SEC Championship and the conference tournament championship. We were involved in both of them within a week. Now we've got a chance at the national championship, so...
Our kids have been really good, really grounded, for all year really.

Q. What offensive performance do you look forward that you need to get from Mississippi State and also South Carolina?
COACH SCHAEFER: Well, obviously they attack you with so much aggression. They play the way we like to play. They're playing that lineup right now that's really fast, aggressive. They go off the bounce. They play around A'ja, who you just can't get a butt on her. She's so good. In my opinion, she's the best player in the country. I mean, I've had to deal with her now for three years. I ought to know.
Dawn has put those kids obviously in some great positions to be successful. They play really hard defensively. That's the thing people don't give them credit for, or they should get more credit for, is, man, they guard your tail. When we walked out of the gym three weeks ago, four weeks ago, scored four points in the fourth quarter, that will humble you in a hurry. That kind of led to some of the things we did differently.
They really, really play you extremely tough. They're physical. I mean, they play the way that we do. If we'll play the way we typically play, we'll have a chance in the ballgame.
But we're going to have to play really hard, we're going to have to be physical, aggressive. We have to try to take away some of those things that they're doing really well right now.

Q. Vic, on Morgan William, how much does her size mean that she had to figure out how to make shots, like the one she made last night, by finding ways to get the ball in creative ways over bigger defenders?
COACH SCHAEFER: Yeah, you know, I've tried all my career not to get too caught up in numbers on kids. That's somebody's opinion.
Now, you can't make a living on two stars, so to speak, so you've got to make sure if you take somebody, like a Dominique maybe that wasn't highly recruited. But there was no doubt in my mind Dominique was exactly what I needed. We had nobody. We didn't have any toughness, we had no competitive spirit with that team. We had to recruit it. Her and Savannah Carter, who was a junior college player, didn't recruit them for their jump shot. I recruited them for their toughness, for their physical nature, their competitive spirit.
Morgan's the same way. Now, Morgan was a pretty good player in high school. When we watched her play, boy, she covered ground. They played a zone press. She would cover from one sideline to the other. Even at her size, she's long.
Quick, foot speed quick, athleticism. There was no doubt in my mind. I've had some small point guards in my career. I've seen some really good small point guards in my career.
I think when you've done it as long as I have, you get a feel for, you know, kids remind you of kids, if that makes sense. When you watch kids play, you get a good feeling. You have a confidence of, Hey, she reminds me of so-and-so, a First Team All-SEC player, whoever. I think she's going to be good for us.
I got that with her. I had that comfort level with her, that she was going to be really special. Number one, she's quick, quick, quick. I got two of the fastest kids I've ever coached in my life. Her and Jazzmun Holmes are two of the fastest kids straight line I've ever coached.

Q. You mentioned the SEC tournament game against South Carolina, What went wrong? What do you try to correct for tomorrow's game?
COACH SCHAEFER: Well, I think you give Dawn a lot of credit. She changed up some defenses, went to zone. We didn't handle it real well. They made some changes defensively on how they were guarding Morgan.
When you only score four points, you're not going to beat anybody in March having a four-point quarter. And we did. Offensively we didn't make shots. We didn't execute very well. They did.
We just watched it 30 minutes ago, watched bits and pieces of that film. There's some things on there that are glaring to us and our kids. Again, the film doesn't lie. When you watch that, you see why we had the problems that we had. So you got to make those adjustments.
When we got back home, that's some of the first things I addressed. We showed the film of the fourth quarter, then we addressed those issues that we had during the fourth quarter, which I'm not going to go into here. But you got to address 'em and you got to correct 'em. That was part of some of the changes that we had early on.
The other piece was, we had to correct our physical mistakes in practice with certain drills. We've done that, as well.

Q. Back in 2011 you helped topple another No. 1 team to go on to win. Do you have any of that in your mind this time, being in American Airlines Center, taking on a No. 1 team?
COACH SCHAEFER: Well, obviously I know what's happened here. That's five years ago. Different team, whole different dynamic. But obviously I've had two real special victories in that arena. Two special teams.
That team last night, y'all, again, we can sit here and talk about it all day, but the toughness, the competitive spirit that our kids played with last night, we've seen it all year, numerous nights. Until you get to see it firsthand, you really don't know my kids.
They were just so tough, resilient. They talked last night about the game is full of runs. We had a really big run early. That's what allows you to survive Connecticut's runs.
We built that lead early. Somebody told me we were up 16. I really didn't know that. I was too busy worrying about defense, offense. Had no clue. Is that correct?
I mean, it allowed us to deal with their runs during the course of the ballgame. Again, I don't think our kids ever once got rattled. But we've been in those games before with the schedule we played.
Certainly arena's been good to us. I'd love for it to be really kind to me one more night.

Q. With such a short turnaround, does it help you're playing a team that's an SEC rival, you know the personnel? You don't have to say, This is who the center is, who their guards are.
COACH SCHAEFER: Personally I'd rather be playing somebody else, to be honest. They know us better than anybody. Obviously we feel like we know them. But I'm really proud that we have two Southeastern Conference schools in the championship of our sport. That's really special.
For me personally, I think that's what the NCAA tournament gives you, is you finally are going to get to play somebody that isn't one of your 16 rivals. We play 16 rival games, that's how I call it, in our league. I'd much rather be playing somebody that might not know me quite as well.
I think my staff does a tremendous job. They're very thorough in scouting. So that's the piece that, if I had my pick, I'd rather probably be dealing with somebody else. Fact of the matter is we've got to go against them.
Again, we've got to fix some things that we've had some issues with them over the course of two ballgames this year.

Q. A'ja Wilson made her mark in the SEC. In the two losses, she really kind of took over when she needed to. What does she do so well that makes her so difficult to defend?
COACH SCHAEFER: Number one, she's very active. She's physical. She's not going to stop working. She's a constant worker. Just a competitor. She wants to be in the moment. She wants the big shot.
But if she doesn't take it, she's going to go clean it up. That's the thing we tried to impress upon with our kids. They've got three or four kids now, when the ball goes up, if you don't find 'em and put a butt in the gut, they're going to go right by you and stick it in. They're going to get the rebound and get the put-back.
For us, we understand what's coming down the pike. We've had two doses of it this year. We just watched film again. We'll watch some more this afternoon. So we understand and respect South Carolina so much. Those kids that they have... We've got to go out and try to fix some of our issues we've had with them.
A'ja Wilson, like I told you, because of her competitive spirit, because of how hard she plays, just makes her even harder to deal with because she's got a skill set to go with it. It is multi-dimensional.

Q. How different is South Carolina playing without Alaina Coates?
COACH SCHAEFER: I mean, they're fast. They're getting up and down the floor. Cuevas, she may be faster, as fast as my two are. They're playing those guards. Those kids are just in attack mode.
They do a great job, for the most part, they can stretch you and shoot it. They create a real interesting -- what it gives them is spacing on the floor that maybe with Alaina they didn't have. That's the piece that you've got to deal with, for us, is dealing with that spacing. When it's created, you got to try to not give them as much room as they want, which is extremely difficult. If you back off somebody, they'll knock down shots.
I think for them, obviously Davis is just playing with so much confidence right now. She hurt us when we played them in the second ballgame.

Q. Coach, what did you think the difference was in the first two games, and how excited are you to get another chance at South Carolina for a national championship?
COACH SCHAEFER: Well, I'm excited to get a chance at anybody for a national championship. Again, South Carolina certainly presents so many issues for us.
So, I mean, the first game we had with them at their place, it's a knockdown, dragout, came down to one play. We talked about that with our kids. It came down to one play in that ballgame. When you're playing in those games, in those arenas, in those atmospheres, and we were playing in front of 15,000 at their place, I walked out of the arena that night with a lot of confidence in my kids.
Certainly we were disappointed. We knew we missed a layup with 30 seconds left to go up one. We had out-of-bounds plays. Blair had two open threes in the corner that could have been difference makers. We all knew we could have made plays during the course of the ballgame.
That's what it came down. It came down to one play in that first game. You walk out of there feeling, Okay, we're right there. They're picked to win our league. We were picked second. Played them on the road. Came down to one play. So I walk out of there with a lot of confidence.
When I walked out of the arena on the second one, I was disappointed with myself. When you score four points in the fourth quarter, and your offense looks like it sets the game back 30 years, there's nobody to blame but myself.
We went home and we went to work. We had a week and a half to get ready for the NCAA tournament. That's what we did. That's what you do if you're a competitor. I mean, I knew this team was capable of getting here. I told y'all that before. I said it back in September. I know what a Final Four team and a national championship team looks like. I've been a part of that. Fortunate enough to do that.
I told them that back in September. So my job was to fix what's broken. It's never too late. I've been telling our kids that for a month now. It's not too late to get better today. Let's get one play better. Let's get one play better today. We talked about that now for a month.
We got a chance to get one play better today. If we keep getting one play better every day, we're going to be playing for the national championship. And that's where we are.

Q. You obviously mentioned the last game in the SEC tournament. Morgan had seven turnovers, what do you want her not to try to do in terms of putting the team on her shoulders, again?
COACH SCHAEFER: Well, I think she's just got to continue to make good decisions. She's playing well. She's got a lot of confidence right now. I don't think I need to talk to her about what not to do. I think she's got a good feel for that.
She's a junior in class, but to me she's already had her junior year. She's playing, you know, like a senior. She understands what her role is. She understands the leadership piece, the responsibility piece. She's owning our team right now, which is good.
Again, the kid's playing with confidence. She wants to be in that moment. So it's good to have kids like that. I got more than one right now, by the way. Again, I think that's what allows you to be where you are today because you've got a locker room full of kids that aren't afraid to take that shot.

Q. In the big picture, if there were a lot of folks who have been complaining, for lack of a better word, that it's always UConn, and they wanted something new for the game, they're going to get something new tomorrow.
COACH SCHAEFER: Our game is so special. Again, here's the bottom line. UConn ain't going away. They'll be back. They'll be back stronger than ever.
I think that's the challenge for all of us, is we've got to -- if we're going to have any success at this level, this stage, we've all got to continue to elevate our game and our program.
The fact of the matter is, the game is sold out tomorrow night. It's my understanding tickets have gone up in price since the victory last night, which I think speaks well for both schools. Both of us have tremendous followings. We're both top seven in the country in attendance.
I think it's exciting for our game. I think last night our arena was electric. I mean, if you were in that arena or watching it on national TV, that was an electric atmosphere for our student-athletes. What an unbelievable experience for them and for anyone who loves our game.
It's not up to one school to make that happen. I think that's what you're seeing. So for us and South Carolina, you're going to see two teams that are going to be extremely tough, physical, aggressive. They're going to represent not only our conference but our game in such a positive manner.
It should be a great game and fun to watch. Both of us play an exciting brand. So I'm not sure I answered your question, but, again, I think we all need to understand, like I said last night, I didn't have to play 'em best out of five, best out of seven. I only had to play 'em once. It's why you play the game. Our kids were special last night.
But trust me, Connecticut's not going anywhere, you know. There will be another streak started next year. They'll have a chance to run that streak for a long time.
I think what we did last night, it gives people hope. If you prepare, if your student-athletes believe, on any given night anything can happen. That's the beauty of sport.

Q. It seemed last night was a huge Mississippi State crowd.
COACH SCHAEFER: Yeah, special.

Q. How much is having your fans loud, supporting you tomorrow night going to help you guys?
COACH SCHAEFER: Dawn did text me. I responded back to her probably I think this morning after the Good Morning America that I'm not sure I was up saying good morning, America, but I was in front of a camera.
Again, was really thrilled for her, as well.
Our fans are what make Mississippi State so special. I got to tell you, I've been to a couple pretty big universities in my career. Our fan base is so special. They love our kids. They're so excited right now. I can't even get 'em through the lobby to get 'em to a bus. I got to plan for a 30-minute walk because it's stop, stop, picture, picture, autograph, autograph. I call my team the people's team. When we win at home, we don't go to the locker room. We go in the stands and hug mamas and kiss babies or hug babies and kiss mamas. That's what we do. They just want to hug my kids. They want to give them a dozen cookies. They want to tell them they love them.
That's how we built our fan base. We're accessible, we're personable.
The arena last night, special. That atmosphere for both teams, so special. How proud I'm sure our Women's Basketball Coaches Association is and Miss Brown is today. The atmosphere we created for the biggest stage in our championship. I'm sure it's going to be that way tomorrow. I'm proud of my fans because they were a big part of that.
Today there's people driving in to be here for tomorrow. So it's an exciting time, no question about it. I'm awfully proud to be the coach at Mississippi State.

Q. When did you maybe first notice Morgan had that, I want the ball at the end of the game?
COACH SCHAEFER: You're talking about recruiting, when you first start recruiting her?
I think in recruiting, my staff does such a great job. Johnnie has been with me 10 years. Johnnie Harris knows exactly what our system is, the kind of players that we need. She's been with me since day one.
Since added Coach Jackson and Coach Thibault, who obviously know exactly and have learned our system and what we do. But Johnnie has been with me. We've been together a long time. She does a tremendous job in identifying kids that can play in our system.
I think the meat of your question about her wanting the ball in those big moments, I think that's something that's developed. Certainly Morgan was confident when she came to us. She had 29 in her freshman year, you know, in the NIT. I think with Morgan, she's learned to not only be this point guard, who is really good in the open floor, but she's learned to run a team in the halfcourt.
In our league, and in this tournament, you win with halfcourt offense and halfcourt defense at the end of the day. I think with Morgan, that's the piece she's added to her game, is the halfcourt offensive piece.
But I think her confidence has grown of late, no doubt about it. When you get in a huddle and you're going against Baylor, the No. 1 seed, and she looks 92 the eye in a timeout and says, Coach, if I'm open, I'm going to shoot it.
Hey, that's a good idea. You go ahead and turn it loose.
But you want that kind of confidence in your huddle. The Jimmy Chitwood, Hey, I'll say the shot, Coach.
I have other kids that want to be in that moment. She is owning our team right now, she's owning herself as the point guard and leader of our team. That's what you want a point guard to do. I've seen her grow obviously throughout her whole career. But I think right now her confidence is at an all-time high.

Q. You talked in the days leading up to the game against Connecticut about focusing on Mississippi State and not worrying about the name on the opponent's jersey. Is there a similar train of thought against South Carolina, given the recent history in the series?
COACH SCHAEFER: You know, probably a little bit. I think because of our familiarity with them. Our kids, they understand what's in front of us. They understand the challenges that we've had. They understand the things we've got to adapt and fix.
Again, we'll have a good practice today, good shootaround tomorrow, try to address some of those.
At the end of the day, you know, South Carolina's not going to change. They're the same great team, coached by the same great coaching staff, and we're going to have to adapt and change. I mean, you know what, we've talked about that in our locker room numerous times, Hey, here is where we are. What were we when we ended the regular season? Whatever we were. We said, Hey, if we're going to get hot in the NCAA tournament, we're going to have to change. Some of y'all are going to have to change. I think that's the beauty of this team, is they changed.
For the game on Sunday, we're going to have to change some things that we did to try to adjust to the things they want to do. At the same time there's some things we need to do better that we're really good at, that may have bothered them a little bit. But we've got to do that even better.
So it's not rocket science. It's not like we're having to invent some cure for something that's incurable. But we're going to have to go out and execute. That's the biggest thing right now. I think our kids have done that.
Q. Considering your history against South Carolina and the fact this team has overcome so many obstacles along the way, do you feel like this final opportunity is the perfect sort of ending to the season for you guys?
COACH SCHAEFER: Well, we keep bringing up my history with South Carolina, so apparently the fact that we've never beaten them is an issue today.
You know, when you're playing in the national championship game, what better way to finish off your season. That's where we are right now. These kids deserve it. They've paid such a tremendous price. We practice harder than anybody in the country, I'm quite confident. My kids are tough. They have such an incredible competitive spirit. They've earned the right to be here. We've come through an incredibly tough region. We've played a grueling schedule all year long. They've earned the right to be here.
I couldn't be prouder of 'em, I couldn't be more happy for 'em. I know the sacrifices that they've made. But again, until you know what's inside their breastplate, know the heart, the size of their heart, you just -- my confidence in them is a whole lot different obviously than the confidence of the media. That's fine. It's fine.
But I know what I've got in my locker room. I know what I have on the staff. It's really, really special. For these kids to be in this game in this moment, it's really appropriate, in my opinion.
Again, it's like the saying in our locker room, It's not what we do but how we do it that separates us from the rest of the country. Everything that that entails, there's not a lot of teams that do that. I think that's one of the reasons why we're here.

THE MODERATOR: Thank you, Coach.
COACH SCHAEFER: All right. Praise the Lord and go Dogs.


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