Mississippi State’s Teaira McCowan stretches before a practice session for the women’s NCAA Final Four college basketball tournament in Columbus, Ohio.

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Teaira McCowan is famously 6 feet, 7 inches tall and looks like a 7-footer when she wears her hair up. She was 6 feet, 5 inches tall as an eighth grader eight years ago when Mississippi State associate head coach Johnnie Harris saw her for the first time.

“I was like, ‘Wow!’” Harris said Thursday, recalling the precise moment she first saw McCowan. “She was so, so tall, so skinny and such a girly girl on the court back then. She was just so much taller than everyone else on the floor. I’ll never forget that.”

Both Harris and Vic Schaefer were assistant coaches at Texas A &M then. Not long thereafter, they left Texas for Mississippi State. But they didn’t forget the tall, skinny “girly girl” from Brenham, Texas.

And that’s a good thing.

Rick Cleveland

McCowan – so much stronger, so much more mature – will lead the 36-1 Bulldogs onto the floor here at Nationwide Arena Friday night against Louisville in the first game of the NCAA Women’s Final Four. A 21-year-old junior, she has been playing the best basketball of her life lately. In two games at the Kansas City Regional against North Carolina State and UCLA, McCowan scored 47 points and pulled down 36 rebounds. She made 18 of 26 field goal attempts, 11 of 13 free throws. She blocked eight shots and altered heaven only knows how many others.

And so you can add N.C. State’s Wes Moore and UCLA’s Cori Close to the growing chorus of coaches who keep saying in one version or another: “We just had no answer for Teaira McCowan.”

Nobody does, unless McCowan gets into foul trouble, which she did against South Carolina in State’s only loss this season. State has several remarkable players who are coached well, including All-American Victoria Vivians. But make no mistake. There is only one Teaira McCowan. State has her. Nobody else does. And McCowan, above all else, is why State has a chance to bring home the first NCAA team championship in school history.

“I think the thing that really has impressed me is just how hard she plays the game, her pursuit of the basketball rebounding,” Schaefer said. “She has really become that Bill Russell type, who understands angles and shots when they are coming off. … It’s hard to move her. Her strength, I think, is really another dominating factor.”

It has been a long, long journey – in more ways than one – from “girly girl” 13-year-old, small-town Texan to arguably the most intimidating post player in all of college basketball.

No. 1, McCowan had to learn how to play the game.

No. 2, she had to learn how to be Teaira McCowan.

The second part may have been harder than the first.

Very few people know what it is like to be a foot taller than almost all your peers. You get strange looks. You get called stuff. You become the butt of jokes. You stand out so much in the crowd, you become an easy target.

“I got teased a lot,” McCowan said. “I got bullied, too.”

And no, she didn’t fight back. She didn’t even talk back.

“I was quiet and shy,” she said. “I just took it.”

She became a Parade All American at Brenham High School, but she will tell you that had mostly to do with being by far the tallest player on the floor nearly every time out. She didn’t know how to play.

Harris, whom Vic Schaefer credits most for McCowan’s rapid improvement, remembers the first individual workout she put McCowan through.

“OK, Tea, we’re going to work on your drop step,” Harris said.

“My what?” McCowan answered.

She didn’t even know what a drop step, the most common move for a post player, was.

“I really didn’t know much of anything,” McCowan said.

But she possessed soft hands, was developing a sturdy body – and she was just 6-7.

Her work ethic has improved at State. Her endurance has increased. Her confidence has grown.

And, boy, does she know the drop step – and a lot of other steps.

“She has put in the work,” is the way Harris puts it. “She deserves the credit, because she has worked so hard at it.”

In her first full year as a starter, McCowan has produced 27 double-doubles, meaning she has scored and rebounded in double figures in the same game 27 times. She has done that in the SEC with, as Vic Schaefer puts it, “two or three players hanging on her at all times.”

As McCowan’s game has progressed, so has her persona.

Here’s the way she put it Friday: “I found out who I really am. I just became me. I am a lot more comfortable with myself.”

She smiles a lot more. She jokes with teammates after games.

Thursday, McCowan remembered a day earlier this season when a high school team was working out at State. The team had one girl much taller than the rest. The girl sought out McCowan, asked how she dealt with the strange looks, the barbs and all the rest.

Said McCowan, “I told her, ‘Don’t be sad. I’ve been there.’ I told her to be herself, use her size. I told her it takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight.”

It surely didn’t for McCowan. But these days, Tea McCowan is happy to be all 6 feet, 7 inches of herself.

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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.