How Sweet It Is MSU's Women punch second consecutive ticket to the sweet 16

Mississippi State began March Madness at home for the second-straight year as the Bulldogs received a program-best No. 2 seed in this year's NCAA Women's Basketball Championship.

First Round vs. Troy, March 17, 2017

After a hard end to the regular season, after several weeks of struggling offensively, the Bulldogs emphatically declared in Humphrey Coliseum that they are back. In front of thousands at The Hump, State returned to form Friday afternoon, playing like the team those fans saw in January that look destined for the Final Four and capable of beating anyone in the country.

They were rebounding, they were stealing, they were scoring and defending. They hit shots, blocked shots and called their shots. They stole buzzer beaters, accepted free throws, clogged the lane and caught absolute fire on the perimeter.

MSU completely dominated Troy, breaking into triple digits in an NCAA Tournament game as they won 110-69, their 30th win of the season. History be darned, with the Bulldogs playing at their best, the Trojans just didn’t have the horses to keep up.

Friday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament was a return to form for MSU, and it appeared in some respects to possibly even be version 2.0 of these Bulldogs with a massive shakeup to the starting lineup and impressive performances from the starters and bench players alike.

Blair Schaefer got her second start of the year and rewarded her coaches with a career-high 21 points, scoring all of State’s first 11 points to start the game. Roshunda Johnson was inserted into the starting lineup and she, too, made the call look equally as smart, dropping 13 points in 17 minutes.

It was, perhaps, the quietest double-digit scoring game of Victoria Vivians’s career, but Schaefer’s decision to take her out of the starting lineup for the first time all season paid dividends. Having been in a slump to finish the season, the All-SEC Vivians shot 5-of-11, scored 13 points and brought in six rebounds despite only playing for 16 minutes.

All told, MSU had five players in double-digits, but their defense was even more impressive. Bulldogs out-rebounded Trojans 61-48, racking up seven blocks and 11 steals along the way, forcing 21 turnovers and holding Troy to 31.3 percent shooting.

Behind Schaefer’s scheming and his players’ production, the Bulldogs absolutely dominated the Trojans in the manner of a prize fighter who deflects every shot the opponent takes and lands every punch they throw.

The unrelenting attack, the smothering performance, seemed to declare that Mississippi State is ready for any foe this tournament may provide. The field is sliced in half with each round, and the Bulldogs don’t plan to be cut any time soon.

Second Round vs. DePaul March 19, 2017

Vic Schaefer likes to refer to Teaira McCowan as an aircraft carrier on occasion, and considering the sophomore forward is 6’7” with an even longer wingspan, the comparison makes some sense. On Sunday, Schaefer had en entire fleet of ships, a set of four forwards defending their basket like carriers protect their homeland and dominating the paint with the same might and precision of a military offensive.

Mississippi State beat a talented DePaul team in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in Starkville by a score of 92-71, and they did so on the backs of their forwards. Schaefer’s quartet of Breanna Richardson, Chinwe Okorie, Ketara Chapel and McCowan paved the way early, dominating the paint and controlling the boards against a squad of Blue Demons that just didn’t have the size to compete. MSU ultimately out-rebounded DePaul 48-26 and 52 of the Bulldogs’ 92 points came in the paint, the four aircraft carriers accounting for nearly 40 of them.

“It was easy for us to go inside,” point guard Jazzmun Holmes said after her 14-point and six-assist performance, “and we could finish.”

“They’ve got a lot of weapons,” DePaul coach Doug Bruno added, having previously admitted, “we were not able to defensively stop Mississippi State.”

With MSU commanding things around the basket early, the DePaul defense was forced to crowd the lane, opening things up for State’s shooters to have a field day of jumpers and threes. The Bulldogs shot 75 percent from three in the second half and hit nearly 60 percent of all field goals in the final two quarters. Junior guard Blair Schaefer emerged as one of the primary benefactors, dropping 18 points over the course of the game, and that coming after a 21-point career day in round one on Friday.

“We talked at halftime that we needed to instill our will out there,” she said after the game, reflecting on what made MSU so successful in the second half. “When they put so much emphasis on our post players, it just opens up so many things for us on the perimeter.”

The back-to-back outings for the younger Schaefer are indicative of the performances of MSU’s entire team in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs had a rough end to the regular season and SEC Tournament, causing some to ask their coach just this week if perhaps his team had peaked too early in the season. By dropping 112 points in the first round and beating a ranked team by over 20 in the second round, Schaefer and his players answered the question with an emphatic no.

“I talked to my kids today in pre-game about who we are and what we’re known for,” Schaefer said. “I talked about toughness and competitive spirit.”

Not only are they back to form, but with a new lineup and one of the deepest benches in the country, they might be even better than they were at their best midseason. State is no longer ranked No. 2 in the country like it was for so much of the regular season, but with the postseason well underway, it’s the performances that matter, not the respect, and MSU is playing like a team who is scared of no one and prepared for anybody.

Like a game of Risk, MSU’s victories won them more ground in the postseason, a national power still on the aggressive with the NCAA Tournament field cut in half. On the backs of their fleet of aircraft carriers, the Bulldogs are only looking stronger as they go.

“Hopefully we’re getting hot at the right time of year,” Schaefer said. “That’s what this tournament is all about.”

Photos by Kelly Price and Blake Williams // Story by Bob Carskadon

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