There’s so much to impress where this Mississippi State women’s basketball team is concerned. They are undefeated. They have won 15 straight. They have risen to No. 4 in both major national polls.
How’s that for starters?
But consider this: Of those 15 straight victories, only four have come at home. State is 4-0 at home, 6-0 on the road and 5-0 on neutral floors. They have won two games in Maine, three in Hawaii, two in California and one in Iowa, mostly against top-shelf competition.
Little wonder Vic Schaefer, the team’s most excellent (and hard to please) coach, says, “Because of what we have done this year, this team can play anywhere. We can go out and play on the black top and this team will adjust.”
Schaefer’s team will try to further prove those words when they take to the road in SEC play for the first time, playing at Arkansas Thursday night and then at Tennessee Sunday. For all he has accomplished at State in three previous seasons, Schaefer has never taken this experienced a team on the road in the league. His teams won 77 games over his first first three seasons in Starkville playing largely with freshmen and sophomores.
Those freshmen and sophomores are now juniors and seniors. They have been there, done that. “Nothing surprises them,” Schaefer says, and it shows.
But just don’t take it from Schaefer. Kay James, Southern Miss’ retired Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame coach, watched the Lady Bulldogs when they played at Hattiesburg earlier in the season and defeated a solid USM team 72-50.
“They are so tall, so talented, so deep and so well-coached,” said James, who is the analyst on USM radio broadcasts. “We didn’t have an answer for them. The big difference I see is that the past couple years, if you stopped Victoria Vivians, you could beat State. Now, she can have a poor game, and they can still win. They are so balanced.”
Schaefer agrees. “We have great players at every position,” he 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.”
The Bulldogs are nothing if not balanced. Vivians, Mississippi’s all-time leading high school scorer, leads the Bulldogs with 16.7 points per game, but nine players in all average more than five points per game.
Depth? Ten players play more than 10 minutes per game. And those aren’t just “garbage time” minutes. 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. Okorie, playing 22 minutes a game, averages 10 points and 6 rebounds a game. McGowan, playing 16 minutes a game, averages 6 points and 6 rebounds and leads the team in blocked shots.
The opposition is often, as the saying goes, damned if they do or damned if they don’t. If they don’t sag down in the middle to defend the post, Okorie and McGowan will make them pay. But if they do clog the post, Vivians and others will score three at a time instead of just two.
Vivians is shooting at a career-best 43.3 percent per game because, she says, “I’m taking better shots.”
This is not to say State is invincible or cannot improve.
Says Schaefer, “We have a long way to go to be the defensive team I want us to be. 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.“
That is from a coach whose team is out-scoring foes by nearly 30 points per game and out-rebounding them by 10 a game. But Schaefer – and his team – should know how much room they have for improvement. They were 28-7 when they ran into UCONN in the NCAA Sweet 16 last March and were thrashed 98-38. It still hurts.
Says Schaefer, “The last three or four years, it’s been Connecticut and then everybody else. Until somebody beats them, they are it. They are what we are trying to be.”