STARKVILLE – Mississippi State’s basketball women have achieved a perfectly impressive 18-0 start and are fresh off a 76-45 shellacking of Ole Miss Thursday night at The Hump, causing many to ask:

Is it possible that this State team is better than the State team that finished 34-5, slayed Goliath (Connecticut) and made it to the national championship game?

Indeed, someone asked Ole Miss coach Matt Insell just that.

“That’s hard to say, man. Better?” Insell answered. “They were in the national championship game. The only way they’re going to be better is if they win the title. … I think offensively they’re better. I think defensively they’re still trying to find themselves. … It’s just hard to say they’re better until tournament time comes.”

Better? Not yet, but give them time.

Rick Cleveland

Teaira McCowan, the 6-foot-7 skyscraper of a center, is certainly better. Ask the photographer she almost beheaded with a blocked shot in the second half Thursday night. An Ole Miss player drove the lane, put up a shot and McCowan swatted it away with such stunning might and force they could have stopped the game right then and there and most of the crowd of 7,161 would have gone home happy. McCowan’s expression said it all: “Did I just do that?”

Later she would say, “I impressed myself.”

She impressed everyone. She made 12 of 13 shots, retrieved 13 rebounds, scored 25 points, blocked three other shots – all in just 26 minutes of play. She’s better. She’s an All-American. Insell did everything but campaign for McCowan to go pro after this, her junior season. Frankly, I don’t blame him.

Better? Victoria Vivians is certainly better. A career 37 percent shooter, she is hitting 55 percent of her shots this season, averaging a career-high 19 points a game while becoming a better rebounder and defender. She makes it look so easy the way she glides around the court. She’s an All-American, too.

Better? Blair Schaefer, the coach’s daughter, is far, far better. A reserve in the past, she starts, scores nearly 10 points per game and has become, as her demanding dad puts it, “our glue.”

Point guard Morgan “Itty Bitty” William, she of the shot heard round the world, is still a joy to watch. And there are several other important parts to the team that is currently ranked either No. 3 or No. 4 in the nation in the major polls.

But better, as a team?

No. This team has a ways to go. Vic Shaefer, who knows better than anyone, believes they are better offensively and not quite there yet defensively. The Ole Miss game, he said, was a step forward. The Lady Rebels made only 16 of 60 shots. Somebody must have been guarding them.

The main issue from this vantage point is depth. Remember, McCowan spent much of last season coming off the bench behind 6-5 Chinwe Okorie. State’s not that deep inside this year. Gone also are guard Dominique Dillingham and forward Breanna Richardson, who were key components of last season’s best team in school history.

Victoria Vivians (35) often seems to just glide down the court. Credit: Kelly Price

Let’s look at Thursday night. State scored the game’s first 14 points. It was still 19-6 when Vivians picked up her second foul and went to the bench with a minute, 35 seconds left in the first quarter. With 6:23 to go in the second quarter, and State leading 28-11, McCowan picked up her second foul on a mysterious call 30 feet away from the bucket. Vic Schaefer went ballistic and received a well-earned technical foul and was forced to sit McCowan for the remainder of the half.

With State’s two All-Americans on the bench, Ole Miss outscored the Bulldogs 11-6 for the remainder of the half. The lane opened up for Ole Miss drives. At the other end of the floor, State’s offense wasn’t nearly so effective without McCowan in the paint and Vivians on the perimeter. Suddenly, the Bulldogs looked, well, average.

“Our depth was not as good as it has been,” is the way Vic Schaefer put it.

With McCowan and Vivians back to begin the second half, State re-asserted itself and won going away. Still, for about six minutes there, we could see an 18-0 team that appeared vulnerable, to say the least. When State plays teams such as Tennessee, South Carolina and Texas A & M, they surely will try to take advantage of that vulnerability, force the ball at McCowan and give her every opportunity to commit fouls.

Vic Schaefer believes 6-3 sophomore Zion Campbell and 6-1 freshman Chloe Bibby are capable of providing the necessary depth inside. Perhaps …

But at this point one can’t help but wonder how much the loss of Ameshya Williams, slated to be McCowan’s back-up, will hurt in the long run. Williams quit, quite unexpectedly, a game into the season.

“We’ve lost two really good players, two capable of starting, in Ameshya and (guard) Iggy Allen (knee injury) and that’s affected our depth no doubt,” Vic Schaefer said. “I don’t harp on it, but it has hurt us.”

In short, Achilles had his heel and State’s women are thin in the paint if McCowan has to sit.

Believe this: There are about 348 other teams in college basketball who would love to have just that one weakness.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.

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