This was several days ago at The Hump, an hour or so after Mississippi State had defeated a really good DePaul team to advance to the Sweet 16 at Oklahoma City.
Interviews had been conducted, stories had been written and that’s when I bumped into Vic Schaefer.
Earlier we had discussed the outstanding play of his daughter, Blair Schaefer, who led the Bulldogs with 18 points. Now I wanted to ask him about Victoria Vivians, usually the team’s leading scorer, who was mired in a prolonged shooting slump. That day, she hit three of 13 shots and missed really badly on several. So I asked Vic Schaefer whether it was something in Vivians’ physical fundamentals or something between her ears.
“I honestly don’t know,” Schaefer said. “I believe a lot of it has to do with her shot selection. She’s taking some bad shots. But what I do know for sure is this: I’ve got to have her if this team is going to make it to the Final Four. That’s what I know. I have to have her to get to Dallas.”
To get to the Final Four, State had to beat women’s college basketball powerhouses, Washington and Baylor. Washington featured the nation’s leading scorer, Kelsey Plum. Baylor, so tall and talented, averages 90 points per game.
“We’re not scoring enough points to beat those teams,” Schaefer said. “We’ve got to have Victoria to score enough points.”
Vivians, who leads State with a 16 points per game average, scored 13 points to help the Bulldogs beat Washington. She showed flashes of her usual form, but she also missed all eight of her 3-point tries.
Vic Schaefer had to know this: State wasn’t going to beat Baylor with Vivians shooting zero for eight from behind the line.
Mississippi State, now 33-4, was 27-1 going in to Feb. 23 road game at Kentucky. Then came a team slump that was vexing for even a veteran coach such as Schaefer.
In their last two regular season games, the Bulldogs lost to Kentucky 78-75 in overtime, even though Vivians scored 27 points. The Bulldogs then came home for Senior Day and lost 82-64 to Tennessee. Vivians scored 18.
In three SEC Tournament games – two victories and a disappointing 59-49 loss to South Carolina in the championship game – Vivians was a combined 8 for 30.
So State entered the NCAA Tournament having lost three of its last five games and with its leading scorer hitting less than a third of her shots during that span.
Vic Schaefer did what not a lot of coaches would do entering the NCAA tournament. He benched four of his normal starters, including Vivians, in effect changing 80 percent of his starting lineup. In poker terms, he kept point guard Morgan Williams in the lineup and otherwise drew an all new hand.
State beat Troy, DePaul and Washington using that lineup.
But Vivians was back in the lineup against Baylor, and you don’t have to ask Vic Schaefer to know why. He had to have her to beat Baylor, and he knew it. Even with Morgan William’s 41 points and seven assists, State wasn’t going to defeat Baylor without Vivians returning to form.
Let the record show that Vivians scored 24 points, corralled six rebounds, passed out six assists and stole the ball twice in State’s remarkable victory. She hit nine of 23 shots from the field and three of nine from behind the 3-point arc. She defended. She played the way a champion is supposed to play. When William got the hot hand, Vivians put the ball in her hands.
Give credit to Vic Schaefer for instinctively making the right calls. Give credit to Morgan William for one of the greatest individual performances in this writer’s memory. But also give credit to Vivians for fighting through the worst slump of her basketball life and emerging with a wide, Victorious smile.
On to Dallas…
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