NASHVILLE – They come at you in waves, these undefeated Mississippi State Bulldogs do. They are relentless, which is perhaps the most important reason they are 32-0.
And Sunday, at Bridgestone Arena, which might as well be Humphrey Coliseum North this weekend, they will play South Carolina for the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship. That’s defending National Champion South Carolina. That’s the same South Carolina that has won this tournament for three years running. That’s South Carolina, which trounced Georgia 71-49 Saturday night.
Saturday afternoon, State took Texas A & M’s best shot and fired back for a 70-55 victory, marking the 29th time in 32 games that the Bulldogs have won by double digits.
Texas A & M, the nation’s No. 15 team and winner of 24 games, came out smoking. The Aggies, so skilled and athletic, led Mississippi State by eight points nine minutes into the game. The Aggies out-rebounded the Bulldogs 43-32 for the entire game. SEC Freshman of the Year Chennedy Carter scored 27 points. Anriel Howard, a gazelle of an athlete, soared for 17 rebounds.
And it wasn’t enough, not nearly enough.
As State often does, the Bulldogs took the game over in the second quarter. And once they had their sneakers on the Aggies’ necks, they didn’t take them off. State led 36-28 at intermission, 54-40 after three quarters.
“They absolutely punched us in the gut and floored us,” State coach Vic Schaefer said afterward. “I was really proud of the way our kids responded.”
Schaefer said he never raised his voice during the break between first and second quarters, which would be considered an upset by those close to the State program.
“Sometimes it’s better to get out of their way and let them figure it out,” Schaefer said. “Our seniors know what they’re doing. They really answered the bell.”
Schaefer might not have raised his voice but thousands of maroon-clad State fans did. They took the place over and made it seem like, as Schaefer called it, “Starkville North.”
Some of the loudest cheers were for senior point guard Morgan William, the tiniest Bulldog, who really gave State a huge boost near the end of the first half with six points, a steal, a rebound and two assists over a four-minute span as State made a 24-24 tie into an eight-point halftime lead.
“Morgan William is just a winner,” Aggies coach Gair Blair said afterward. “She was very good today.”
Blair shook his head before continuing, “I asked Morgan before the game if she’s going to try and play at the next level, and she answered, ‘If they’ll have me.’ That’s how humble that kid is. And they will have her because she knows how to make a team work.”
Morgan’s final line: 15 points, two rebounds, five assists, one steal and zero turnovers – for a point guard, that’s pretty much ideal.
But State comes at you from so many different directions. Victoria Vivians led the Bulldogs with 22 points and what Vic Schaefer called “some big, big shots at some big, big moments.” Roshunda Johnson scored 13 points and was outstanding on defense. Teaira McCowan was held to six points but contributed 13 rebounds, four blocked shots and so many altered shots as well.
“McCowan just intimidates you inside,” Blair said “It’s not what she scores, it’s her presence in the lane.”
If you’re looking for a State downside, it could be this: McCowan played 39 minutes. So did Blair Schaefer. Vivians played 35 minutes, Johnson 35 and William 33. State never got a big enough lead that Vic Schaefer felt comfortable resting his starters for today’s championship game.
But if you look at that way, know that Vic Schaefer doesn’t.
“We are built for this,” he said. “Our kids are trained for this moment. I am not worried about it. If it doesn’t work out, it’s not going to be because we’re tired or we are sore or whatever. It ain’t gonna be that. We are built for this moment.”