STARKVILLE — It happened 367 days ago, but Mississippi State players have not forgotten. Nor will they. Ever.
Connecticut 98, Mississippi State 38.
“You don’t forget something like that,” State senior Breanna Richardson said Tuesday. “You can’t flush that away.”
“It was embarrassing,” Dominique Dillingham said, rolling her eyes. “It is definitely motivating to us now.”
On March 26, 2016, at Bridgeport, Conn., UConn set a NCAA Tournament record for games beyond the first round with the 60-point margin of victory. The Huskies led 61-12 at halftime.
State coach Vic Schaefer remembers it, as well.
“Embarrassing doesn’t even cover it,” Schaefer said. “It was hard for me to deal with personally.”
“UConn had beaten Texas by 51 in the Sweet 16 the year before,” Schaefer said. “That was the record until we broke it.”
It is no embarrassment to lose to UConn. The Huskies have won four straight national championships, 12 overall. Their dominance in women’s basketball – or virtually any sport – is unprecedented.
But, come on, 60 points?
“If we had played them 100 times, we couldn’t have beaten them,” said Schaefer, who called last season’s UConn team, which graduated its three leading scorers, the best in the history of women’s college basketball.
And now, little more than a year later, State will play UConn again in Friday night’s Final Four semifinals at Dallas. Schaefer has decisions to make: How much do you dwell on last year? Do you show the tape of last year’s game? Or do you, to use Richardson’s words, try to “flush” it?
Schaefer says he has done neither.
“I am going to show them parts of it, and I’m not going to tell you what parts,” Schaefer said.
The guess here is that Schaefer will show them how the Bulldogs were able to get open shots against the Huskies – shots that didn’t go in. He will show them how they had opportunities for success, but didn’t capitalize.
He doesn’t need it to show his team how proficient UConn is. They have eyes. They watch TV. Indeed, they were watching Monday night when UConn swamped Oregon 90-52.
Yes, Dillingham said, it did remind her “a little” of State’s 60-point loss a year ago. Oregon, as State a year ago, was a young team. As last year, the NCAA Regional Tournament was more like a home game for the Huskies. Like they did for State last year, the Huskies’ speed and intensity caught Oregon off guard. The game got away from them.
Asked the difference between Connecticut last year and this, Richardson shrugged. “None really. Everybody thinks there has to be some drop off but I don’t see any. UConn is dominant every year. There’s really no difference.”
But they will also tell you this is a different State team, older, wiser and deeper.
“We know what to expect,” Richardson said.
Of UConn, Dillingham said, “Sometimes the name, itself, can scare you.”
But now, State has been there, done that. And there’s this: Friday night won’t be like a home game for UConn. Chances are, State will have at least as many fans as UConn. And otherwise neutral fans tend to pull for the underdogs, which most definitely is State in this case. The early betting line has UConn a 20-point favorite. But UConn has had some close calls. The Huskies won at Florida State by two and at Tulane by three. These State women are a proud, accomplished group. They believe they can win.
Schaefer says his team is heating up at the right time. “This time of the year is about getting hot – we’re hot,” he said. “I’m not trading my team for anybody’s.
“I’d be shocked if our kids were in awe.”
But they were in awe of the Huskies 367 days ago. Friday night, we’ll see just how much they’ve grown.
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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