"It was really exciting," said Rack. "Just waiting was a little nervous, then we got our name and we were jumping up in excitement and we really didn't know who we were playing! Everybody just saw Mississippi State." Which of course was all they hoped to see, and it took a while to look beside that line in the bracket.
"I asked Danielle who we were playing!" admitted senior forward Robin Porter.
That answer was Texas, as the NCAA matched the #5 seed Longhorns against #11 seeded State in the Berkeley Regional. But to get to the bay area will require first stop in the Midwest as State and Texas were assigned to Columbus, OH. They will square off at noon Saturday with telecast by ESPN2 in the first-ever meeting of the programs.
The winner will meet the winner of host and #3 regional seed Ohio State and #14 seed Sacred Heart.
Though State players and coaches said they expected a bid, based not just on their 22-9 record but a 8-6 regular season finish in the SEC and one league tourney victory, there was just enough uncertainty to keep all on edge in the ten days since returning from Little Rock. Thus, said Coach Sharon Fanning, "We were excited to see our name on there."
This is the fifth time Mississippi State's name has been called by the NCAA, all in Fanning's tenure. But it is the first since 2003 and the coach has known enough disappointments—and her team too much settling for the ‘other' tournament—that a return to the national championships was a big deal for these Dogs. Especially senior Porter, who has waited longest of them all.
"It means a lot, coming from freshman year to senior. You just get a great feeling inside to know you're going to the NCAA. It's what you come to college for."
Even Fanning admitted she wanted to jump out of the chair, "but I was trying to write down my bracket!" The only letdown was being seeded a bit lower than she thought a SEC program deserved this year. "I was thinking eight, nine, ten seed possibly, but you don't know. It's a tremendous opportunity and it doesn't matter where you play and seeds and opponents. Hopefully we make the most of that, expect to win and play the best we've played as a team."
To that end the Bulldogs have been working almost daily since the SEC tourney. Porter said the focus has been on fundamentals, since there was nobody to scout for at the time, and just putting good effort into drills. "Now we've got a reason and we can step it up more in practice."
Fanning has caught "bits and pieces" of some Texas games this year, and she knows the Longhorn staff well. "I know they kicked Tennessee there, they work very hard and they're very athletic. And I saw Ohio State play this past weekend, I know how hard they play. So we're in with some great teams."
At the same time this is a great opportunity for Mississippi State, which has yet to advance past a second-round game in NCAA play. The Bulldogs are certainly under-Dogs, but Fanning thinks her club could be peaking here in March.
"This team has improved as the season has gone on, and our goal is to win a championship," Fanning said. "I can't think of a better time of the year to continue to improve and play your best basketball. So we look forward to getting to Columbus this week."
As for State staff joining the Ladydogs in Ohio, it could be difficult. The Bulldogs open their first-round NCAA action Thursday afternoon in Portland, against Washington. And the winner advances to a Saturday game. For that matter athletics director Greg Byrne says just getting everyone on the road—or in the air—in their disparate directions is the first big job.
"It will make it interesting," said Byrne. "The men leave Tuesday, the women will probably leave Thursday, and we'll have a lot of our folk working hard over this week getting everything put together, to make sure the teams get the best experience possible."
Whatever the extra work involved, Byrne is proud that in his first year as top Dog in the athletics department both the mens and womens teams will play in the NCAAs in the same season; which has only happened twice before at State, in 2002 and '03.
"Obviously we're very proud of our kids, very proud of our coaches to represent the program in such a manner it gives us an opportunity to have two teams in post-season play the same year."
A year that the Lady Bulldogs definitely have worked for. "We knew our potential, we just had to lay it on the court," said Porter. And now the get to play it on the national-tourney court, for a welcome change.
Or as Rack said, "We worked hard to prepare for the NCAA…and not the WNIT!"