Mississippi State center Teaira McCowan (15), center, battles Oklahoma State center Kaylee Jensen (54) and forward Mandy Coleman (3) for a loose ball.


STARKVILLE — With just 24.6 seconds left, and his team leading 71-56, Vic Schaefer signaled officials for a timeout. Schaefer didn’t need to talk to his players. No, he wanted to applaud them.

Rick Cleveland

An announced crowd of 9,881, mostly maroon-clad Mississippi State fans, were most happy to oblige. One by one, beginning with Victoria Vivians, State’s starters walked off the court to thunderous applause and then a bear hug from their coach, who was himself in tears.

All five – seniors Vivians, Morgan William, Roshunda Johnson and Blair Schaefer and junior Teaira McCowan – had earned basketball’s version of a curtain call and the applause. Collectively, they took Oklahoma State’s best shot and fired back for a hard-earned 71-56 victory and a berth in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16.

Mississippi State head coach Vic Schaefer hugs his daughter, senior guard Blair Schaefer, as she leaves the game to deafening cheers.

So the Bulldogs, 34-1, now head to Kansas City and a third straight Sweet 16. State will face North Carolina State on Friday at 6 p.m. on ESPN.

The term “hard-earned” may be overused at times by sports writers and announcers. It really fit this night. Oklahoma State’s Cowgirls, 21-11, led by as many as eight points in the first half, matching the Bulldogs step for step, shot for shot and then some. They are a tough matchup for State with tall, quick guards and a post player, Kaylee Jensen, who can shoot from 3-point range and therefore pull McCowan, State’s 6-foot-7 All American, away from the bucket.

“That is one heckuva basketball team,” Vic Schaefer said of Oklahoma State. “They are so good, so hard to deal with. They are a really tough matchup for us…. Oklahoma State kept coming at us, and we answered the bell every time.”

Seven minutes in, Oklahoma State had raced to a 20-12 lead, making an assortment of acrobatic shots. That’s when Blair Schaefer, stepped up and made a big, contested jump shot to cut it to 20-14. After an OSU turnover, William made a layup to cut the lead to 20-16 after 10 minutes.

But the Cowgirls weren’t done. They kept coming. The second quarter was back and forth until Blair Schaefer, again, swished a huge bucket, a 3-pointer, to give the Bulldogs a 35-34 halftime lead.

The Cowgirls kept coming in the third quarter until several things happened to re-shape the game:

• OSU star Loryn Goodwin (14 points, eight assists, nine rebounds) picked up her fourth personal foul.

• Braxtin Miller, the Cowgirls’ terrific freshman guard, had a scary fall and injured her knee, taking her out of the game for several minutes and limiting her the rest of the way.

• State started getting the ball inside to McGowan, and she took over the game, scoring 12 points and grabbing six rebounds in the third quarter. Naturally, the Bulldogs stretched the one-point halftime lead to 10 points at the end of three.

“If she’s not a first team All-American, I don’t know who is,” Vic Schaefer would say of McCowan.

He could have said the same for Vivians, who led the Bulldogs with 23 points and also added six rebounds and four assists. Defensively, she was outstanding, so much improved over where she was three years ago.

“We don’t have a matchup for Vivians,” OSU coach Jim Littell said. “When you can score at three different levels, it’s just so hard to defend. She can finish at the basket, she’s got a good intermediate game and she can shoot the 3-pointer. That’s just hard to defend.

“We got beat by a very, very good team,” Littell said. “They are extremely well-coached and have two first-round WNBA draft picks.”

But Oklahoma State kept trying. And State kept firing back.

William, the pint-sized point guard, played one of her most complete games in her last game at The Hump. She scored 17 points, passed out two assists and did not commit a single turnover in 38 minutes in a lightning fast game.

“Morgan dictated the whole game,” Vic Schaefer would say. “She controlled the pace throughout and she had the best defensive game she’s had in a long time.”

Vic Schaefer went on, “What a blessing from the Lord for our four seniors to go out that way on that stage in their last home game. They are special. They’ve changed me as a coach and as a person. This entire team is special.”

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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.