DALLAS — Mississippi State insiders here at the Final Four say Vic Schaefer’s mantra to his team has been something like this:
Ladies, you have a chance to do what nobody in the country thinks you can do, but what everybody in the country would love to see you do. Let’s go do it.
Schaefer is dead on.
Nearly everybody loves an underdog and the Bulldogs are decidedly that. Friday night, against UConn, they might as well be the Under-Bulldogs. Las Vegas oddmakers have the Huskies, winners of 111 straight games and a 60-point winner over State last March, as a 22-point favorite.
So the million-dollar question: Does State have a chance other than slim and none?
Yes, I say. State has at least as much of a chance as the U.S. hockey team had in 1980 at Lake Placid, when a team of American college players stunned the world by beating a veteran Soviet Union team, considered the best hockey team in the world, professional or otherwise.
The late Herb Brooks, the American coach, told his team that day: “Great moments are born from great opportunity. That’s what you have here tonight, boys. That’s what you have earned here. One game. If we play them 10 times, they might beat us in nine. But not this game. Not tonight.”
Schaefer’s message Friday night should be similar.
His message to reporters Thursday afternoon bordered on that.
“If we’ll go play like we’ve been playing, look, we just beat a No. 1 seed,” Schaefer said. “Baylor’s pretty good by the way. Got a lot of good players. They were so good they were talking on ESPN about the UConn-Baylor matchup Saturday night before we even played them on Sunday.”
Baylor was the team all the experts pointed to when talking about who might knock off UConn. Baylor has seven McDonald’s All Americans. Yes, and State beat Baylor.
There are other reasons to believe State has a slugger’s chance against the Huskies. The three leading scorers are gone from the UConn team that dismantled State 98-38 in last year’s Sweet 16 match. UConn struggled to win at Florida State (by two points) and at Tulane (by three) during the regular season.
State is playing its best basketball coming into the Final Four. The Bulldogs committed only four turnovers in 40 minutes of fast-paced basketball against Baylor. Said Schaefer, “If we have four turnovers tomorrow night, we’ll be right there.”
For the record, State committed 18 turnovers against UConn last year. Nearly every one was followed by a UConn fast-break layup. Afterward Schaefer described the UConn defenders as “like pirahnas on a roast.”
If Schaefer’s task is to convince his team they can slay the giant, then it is newly named Associated Press Coach of the Year Geno Auriemma’s task to convince his team that State could do the deed. Auriemma, who loses games about as often as America elects presidents, has been extremely good at that over the years.
Said Auriemma Thursday, “There’s nobody on this team right now that had anything other than ‘I was at that game” to do with what happened last year. … If they think they had anything to do with that game, no, they didn’t.
“This is not the same Mississippi State team we played,” Auriemma continued. “The turnaround they’ve made offensively has been remarkable. They’re the same defensive team they were. And we’re not the same team by any stretch of the imagination.”
But they are UConn, and they have won their first four NCAA Tournament games by an average margin of 39 points. They beat Oregon by 38 in the Regional finals.
“We’re dealing with a well-oiled machine that is well-coached, has great players and is always going to play great,” Schaefer said of UConn.
Can State win Friday night? It’s not likely.
It is possible.
“If I am going to have to play them, which I am, now is the time to play them,” Schaefer said. “Let’s win the minute, let’s when the hour, let’s win the day.”
Herb Brooks couldn’t have said it better.
Check out other news at mississippitoday.org and follows us on Twitter @MSTODAYnews.