NASHVILLE – For Mississippi State’s most accomplished team in school history, it was a worst-case scenario – that dreaded perfect storm, thunder and lightning – here Sunday.
Thunder: Early foul trouble for Teaira McCowan, especially against a player of South Carolina center A’Ja Wilson’s ability.
Lightning: An off-shooting night from all of the Bulldogs’ usually accurate 3-point shooters: Victoria Vivians (1 for 5), Roshunda Johnson (2 for 8) and Blair Schaefer (0 for 5). That’s 3 for 23 overall and that won’t get it against anybody, much less South Carolina.
With little inside presence and nothing happening from the outside, State was defeated for the first time after an incredible run of 32 straight victories. Add another SEC Tournament Championship trophy to the Gamecocks trophy case, which surely needs an expansion by now. The score on this year’s will read: South Carolina 62, Mississippi State 51.
“This has been my fear all year, for 32 games” State coach Vic Schaefer said. “That on a night when we don’t shoot it well, do we have enough to against a Top 10 game to find a way to win a game.”
Not this day.
Wilson, the gifted All American, scored 16 points and pulled down eight rebounds to lead a balanced South Carolina team that led by 11 at halftime and then fought off several dogged State comeback attempts over the final two quarters.
There was no lack of effort. Until the end, State players were diving all over the court after loose balls, guarding the Gamecocks aggressively and working the ball for mostly open shots. This day, those shots just did not fall.
South Carolina, 26-6 and ranked eighth nationally, was just better this day. The Gamecocks out-rebounded State 38-23, shot 51 percent from the field and made 10 of 11 free throws, as well. And, yes, it helped that McCowan spent more than 16 minutes of the first half watching from her seat on the State bench after picking up two early fouls.
Sophomore Zion Campbell, who subbed for McCowan, fought gamely and had her moments but at this point in her career she is no match for a player of Wilson’s considerable skills. For that matter, few are.
It had been 337 days since the State women had lost a basketball game. South Carolina was the spoiler that night as well, beating the Bulldogs 67-55 in the national championship game at Dallas.
“Our season’s not over, but this is a bitter taste,” Blair Schaefer said. “We’ve had problems with South Carolina throughout my career, but we’ve built our program to the point we can compete and win against them and that’s what hurts so bad today. We had good shots – shots we usually make – but they just weren’t falling today. It hurts.”
State did beat South Carolina 67-53 at Starkville on Feb. 2. The Bulldogs trailed early in that one, too, but were able to blow the Gamecocks away with a 28-9 fourth quarter.
That’s one reason why Vic Schaefer felt pretty good at halftime, even though his Bulldogs were down by 11. He felt like his team had weathered the storm – the poor shooting and the absence of McCowan – and would play much better in the second half. He even told McCowan, leaving the floor at intermission, that the Bulldogs were in good shape and ready to control the second half.
But again, the shots just didn’t fall.
With the perimeter shots clanging off the iron, Vic Schaefer implored his Bulldogs to attack the basket and score from the inside.
One problem: The Bulldogs missed several layups as well.
“I felt like this game would be a game about toughness,” Vic Schaefer said. “I don’t like it when we get out-toughed. They out-rebounded us by 15 and that’s a big toughness stat.”
To a player, the Bulldogs said they’ll go back to work this week, aiming to improve every day until they open the NCAA Tournament, surely in Starkville, surely as a No. 1 seed.
“It hurts, but we gotta put it behind us, hard as that might be,” Blair Schaefer said. “We gotta get ready for the next season, the big one.”
This State team, the best in school history won’t be remembered for this game. The way it will ultimately be remembered is still to be determined.