Great but not perfect

Mississippi State’s remarkable women’s basketball team has made statement after statement in rolling to a 17-0 record and a No. 4 national ranking.

Sunday, playing at perennial powerhouse Tennessee, State’s 17th statement required an exclamation point at the end of the sentence. Finally. Vic Schaefer’s MSU team won for the first time ever at Tennessee, proving once and for all that if for the first 16 times you don’t succeed, try and try again.

Seriously, before nearly 9,000 fans, State won 74-64 over a Tennessee team that had won six straight games before Sunday. If you really want to know how huge it is for a visiting team to win at Tennessee’s Thompson-Boling Arena, consider this: Before Sunday, Tennessee’s record in the building was 422 victories, just 34 defeats.

Yes, it was a monster win, State’s 12th away from the friendly confines of The Hump in Starkville where they will play the Florida Gators in a home game Thursday night. The Lady Bulldogs are now 5-0 at home, 6-0 on the road and 6-0 at neutral sites.

Although they have a perfect record, Schaefer, who is nothing if not demanding, says they are far from a perfect team. “We have a long way to go to be the defensive team I want us to be,” he says. “We can handle the ball better. Sometimes, we are too careless with the ball. We can rebound better. We are far from the dominating team I know we can be.”

Yet, they are 17-0, and that’s as much because of their depth, balance and experience as any other factors.

Depth? State has 10 players who play an average of 10 minutes or more. Schaefer doesn’t hesitate to substitute at any part of any game. For instance, when Schaefer decides to rest 6-foot, 5-inch senior post player Chinwe Okorie, he brings in 6-foot-7 sophomore Teaira McGowan. Against Tennessee, McGowan came off the bench for 14 points and nine rebounds and played the socks off 6-foot-6 Tennessee star Mercedes Russell. Blair Schaefer, the coach’s daughter and another super sub, was clutch off the bench in the back-to-back road victories over Arkansas and Tennessee.

Balance? Victoria Vivians, Mississippi’s all-time leading high school scorer, leads the Bulldogs with 17 points per game, but nine players in all average more than five points per game. On any given night, any of the Bulldogs can get you. At Tennessee, Morgan William, the team’s little point guard and sparkplug, led the way with 21 points, 10 above her average. Just as importantly, she had four assists and did not turn the ball over in 33 minutes.

Experience? State won 77 games over Schaefer’s first three seasons, playing largely with young players he recruited into the program. Freshmen and sophomores have become juniors and seniors. They have been there, done that. “Nothing surprises them,” Schaefer says.

“We have great players at every position,” Schaefer says. “To win a championship, you can’t have a player that the other team says, ‘We can slough off her and help on someone else. We don’t have to guard her.’ You can’t have that. And you can’t have a player that is so weak defensively, the opponent says, ‘She can’t guard. Let’s attack her.’ I don’t think we have that either offensively or defensively.”

Vivians, Mississippi’s all-time leading high school scorer, has become a much more complete player. She could always shoot the basketball, but she is taking better shots, shooting a higher percentage – and she has become a much, much better defender.

But here’s the deal: She and all the State players must continue to improve to have a shot at the big prize, the national championship. That has become practically the private property of the University of Connecticut, one of the most dominant teams in any sport in American history. The Lady Bulldogs know this better than most. They finished last season in the Sweet 16 against UConn and were drubbed 98-38. Says Schaefer of UConn, “They are what we are trying to be.”

Lately, State has been doing a spot-on imitation.

•••

Rick Cleveland (rcleveland@mississippitoday.org) is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist.

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