DALLAS — This is Mississippi State’s first appearance in the NCAA Women’s Final Four, but playing here in Texas is like homecoming for a bunch of the Lady Bulldogs.
There is a definite Lone Star State influence on the most accomplished Mississippi basketball team in NCAA Division I history.
Start with Vic Schaefer, the 56-year-old coach, who hails from Austin and has played and coached all over the state. “I’m a Texas boy, born and raised here,” Schaefer said Thursday afternoon at the Final Four press conference. “I have so many colleagues and friends that are high school coaches in the state.”
Texans out-number Mississippians four to three on the State roster. And all four Texans are key members of Vic Schaefer’s rotation: Dominique Dillingham, Teaira McGowan, Blair Schaefer and Ketara Chapel. Dillingham and Chapel are seniors, while Schaefer is a junior and McGowan a sophomore.
More are on the way. “We’ll always recruit Texas,” Vic Schaefer said.
When you consider what his current Texans have accomplished, he’d be crazy not to. Dillingham, for my money, is the glue to this team that has won 33 games, lost four and will play powerhouse UConn in Friday night’s semifinals. Her 6.7 points per game average is no indication at all of her value. State is a blue-collar team and Dillingham, the daughter of a homicide detective and a registered nurse in the Houston suburb of Spring, is the most blue-collar of all. Said Schaefer of Dillingham, “She’d step in front of a freight train to draw a charge.”
“Everybody wants to talk about the next McDonald’s All American,” Vic Schaefer said. “I want to know where we’re going to get the next Dominque Dillingham, a kid who wasn’t highly recruited but has impacted our program as much as anybody I’ve ever signed. … I mean she’s just a tough, physical, aggressive basketball player.”
Schaefer had to beat the likes of Florida Atlantic and Louisiana-Lafayette to successfully recruit Dillingham. That wasn’t the case for McCowan, a five-star recruit from Brenham, a town of about 13,500 approximately halfway between Austin and Houston. McCowan, all 6 feet, 7 inches of her, turned down dozens of suitors, including Baylor, to play for State. She is perhaps women’s college basketball’s quickest rising star, having scored 16 consecutive points in the fourth quarter en route to a 26-point effort to help State beat Washington in the Sweet 16.
Blair Schaefer, the coach’s daughter and a sharp-shooting guard, has averaged 13.5 points per game, second highest on the team, in the NCAA Tournament. She would have had a multitude of college offers if she hadn’t made it clear she wanted to play for her father. Blair Schaefer has played her best basketball when it has counted most. As her father said, “No stage has been too big for Blair.”
Blair Schaefer apparently couldn’t be happier for her next “stage” being in the state where she grew up watching her daddy’s teams play.
“All of us from Texas have lots of friends we grew up with who are going to be here,” Blair Schaefer said. “I can’t tell you how many people say they’re coming. I don’t know where they’re getting tickets, but they say it doesn’t matter how much they have to pay, they’ll be here.”
Vic Schaefer had to beat the Texas Longhorns to recruit Chapel, who hails from Temple, about 130 miles south of Dallas. Chapel, who has played in 139 games for State, hit key shots in tournament wins over DePaul and Washington.
“Those kids have all been impacts,” Vic Schaefer said. “No question about it, they have impacted our program. Again, because of my relationships with so many people in this state, we’ll continue to try to get back in and recruit the best kids.”
No doubt, playing in the Final Four here in Dallas will help.
“Women’s basketball has always been big in Texas,” Vic Schaefer said. “There’s a lot of great high school players and the coaching is good. It’s a huge state, a lot of people and a lot of players.”
All those young players dream of competing in the NCAA Final Four, a dream Dillingham will realize Friday night.
“We were really excited when we saw last year where this year’s Final Four would be,” Dillingham said. “Personally, I thought it would be really cool to play my final college basketball game in the Final Four in Texas.”
And so, she is.
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