STARKVILLE — For the first time in her basketball life, Blair Schaefer felt goosebumps.
Mississippi State was playing traditional women’s basketball power DePaul in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. A crowd of just over 6,000 sounded like 60,000 in the Hump, as the Lady Bulldogs stretched their lead in the third quarter. At one point, the ball came to Schaefer in the corner and, without hesitating, she launched a long 3-pointer that hit nothing but net.
“I saw it go in and heard the crowd and as I turned to go back down the court, I felt this chill go down my spine,” Schaefer said. “It’s crazy. I’ve never had that happen before. I’ve heard people talk about it, but I’ve never felt it. But I did today.
“To be out there playing in front of that many people who care so much,” Schaefer continued. “It’s just so cool to play for my dad and to be a part of what has happened here over these last few years. This was really special.”
For State’s first two games of the NCAA tourney, Blair Schaefer has been particularly special. She scored a career-high 21 points in the opening win over Troy on Friday. She scored 18 points, pulled down three rebounds, and had a steal in the Bulldogs’ 92-71 victory Sunday over talented DePaul. That’s a team-leading 39 points from a player who averaged 4.7 per game during the regular season.
Vic Schaefer, the fifth-year MSU head coach, figures a lot of people are now asking where he was hiding his daughter during the regular season. And while he is certainly pleased with how she has played lately, he is anything but surprised.
“There’s no moment too big for her,” father said of daughter. “I can’t say enough about her toughness, her resilience, her competitive fire. She’s a great teammate, and she’s got a heart as big as this state.”
In other words, he knew she had it in her.
Parents coaching their offspring can be one of the most tricky of all relationships. I’ve seen it hundreds, if not thousands, of times at all different levels of all sports. Frankly, it doesn’t work out at least as often as it does. It is a situation fraught with any number of potential problems and petty jealousies. At State, the Schaefers have avoided those.
“I give her all the credit, because I’m probably harder on her than I am on any of them,” Vic Schaefer said.
Blair Schaefer had plenty of opportunities to play elsewhere for coaches not named Schaefer. It was never a consideration.
“I always knew I wanted to play for my dad,” she said. “I see how hard he works and how much he cares about his players, not just as athletes but as human beings. Why would I want to play for someone else? Plus, here, my teammates have made it easy.”
If the women’s game got as much national attention as the men’s game, Vic Schaefer would be trending and then some on Twitter. His decision-making this post-season would be headline news. His team entered the tournament as a No. 2 seed at 29-4. So what does he do? He radically changes his lineup and starts four new players, including his daughter.
So what happens?
A team that averaged 63 points per game in three late-season losses has scored 101 points per game in two NCAA Tournament victories. If Vic Schaefer needed to re-kindle his team’s fire, he can consider his mission accomplished.
It’s like Dominique Dillingham, State’s scrappy, do-it-all senior (and one of the starters now coming off the bench) said: “This team has 10 starters.”
Few teams can match State’s depth and one of those teams is not DePaul, a really good team but a team that goes only eight gifted players deep. The Blue Demons play a fast-paced, up-and-down game and stayed, step for step, point for point with State through the first two quarters, trailing by just one at halftime.
But State kept taking the ball inside to its two post players, Teaira McCowan and Chinwe Okorie, and DePaul had nobody who could deal with them. And when the Demons sagged their defense to give help inside, Blair Schaefer made them pay three points at a time instead of two.
And so State’s record-breaking season continues to Oklahoma City for the round of 16. State next will face the winner of Monday night’s Oklahoma-Washington game.
Sunday afternoon,Vic Schaefer wasn’t about to name his starters for that one. Besides, he really does feel like he has 10 starters at this point, including one named Schaefer.
Rick Cleveland is Mississippi Today’s sports columnist. Read his previous columns and his Sports Daily blog. Reach Rick at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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