Mississippi State head coach Vic Schaefer responds to a question during a news conference for the women’s NCAA Final Four college basketball tournament Saturday.

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Mississippi State, which has competed in college athletics for 123 years, has never won a national championship in a team sport. In contrast, Notre Dame has won 34, 11 in football alone.

Let that sink in for a moment. Thirty-four! The Fighting Irish have won national titles in cross country, fencing, men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s soccer and even one in golf, which has to be difficult when your golf course is under snow for much of the season.

Mississippi State?

Not one. Nada. Notre Dame is an NCAA blue blood. In comparison, State has been a bleeder.

Rick Cleveland

To Vic Schaefer’s MSU Bulldogs falls the task of changing of that – of winning it all in Sunday’s NCAA women’s basketball championship game. To do so, they’ll have to beat what many consider the gold standard in all of college sports: Notre Dame, the school of Knute Rockne, Touchdown Jesus, The Gipper, Joe Montana, Digger Phelps and, well, Muffet McGraw.

Saturday morning, Schaefer tried to sum it up: “It would be the first one we’ve ever won in any sport. I think that’s enough said. It’s so hard to do … to come to this stage at this level, compete against the teams we have to compete against. Tomorrow we’re going against one of the really tradition-rich, storied programs in the history of sport. Not just women’s basketball, but sport.”

Notre Dame’s miracle shot ends State dream

State has been close to the pinnacle in the past. Most of these same women played for the national championship last year, losing to South Carolina 67-55 in the finals. Athletic director John Cohen’s 2013 baseball team made it to the championship series of the College World Series before being swept by UCLA.

“It still haunts me,” Cohen said Saturday morning.

Richard Williams’ basketball Bulldogs made it to the men’s Final Four 22 years ago. The 1940 State football team finished 10-0-1, winning the Orange Bowl. Minnesota was awarded the national championship.

“We’ve had numerous individual national champions over the years, but never a team championship,” MSU president Mark Keenum said Saturday morning. “…So, in a word, winning a national championship in women’s basketball would be huge!”

It will not be easy. McGraw is to Notre Dame women’s basketball what Rockne was to Irish football. Her teams have won nearly 900 games, played in eight Final Fours. She already has been inducted into the international basketball (Naismith) hall of fame.

Vic Schaefer, again: “What Muffet’s done, it’s incredible. So hard to do year in, year out. … She’s one of those top 10 programs year in, year out. You’re not looking down there at 11 through 20 to find them. No, they’re somewhere in that Top 10. … To go against someone like that, well that’s what it’s supposed to be.”

That’s where Schaefer wants to be – indeed, where it looks like, to this observer, State is going to be for the foreseeable future – a Top 10 program.

Schaefer’s Bulldogs pride themselves on toughness. So do the Irish, who have overcome four season-ending ACL surgeries to reach the Final Four. Several times Friday night, it seemed powerful UConn had finally put the Irish away. The Irish always fought back.

They are 34-3, these Irish are. They lost to UConn back in December by eight points. And they lost twice to Louisville, the team State beat in overtime in the semifinals on Friday. Louisville smoked Notre Dame 100-67 on Jan. 11. Much later, in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament finals, the Cardinals nipped the Irish 74-72 in a game Notre Dame just as easily could have won.

Mississippi State, McGraw said Saturday, most reminds her of Louisville in the way State plays relentless pressure defense.

The difference, again, is that State has Teaira McCowan, and Louisville doesn’t. Neither does Notre Dame. Neither does anyone else.

“I don’t know what we’ll do (about McCowan),” McGraw said. “We’ve got a couple of plans . … She rebounds the ball like nobody I’ve ever seen.”

McCowan is the primary reason I would make State the slightest of favorites to win a first-ever national championship.

Vic Schaefer, one last time: “Why not us? We’re good enough. We’re tough enough. I think our skill set is good enough. … So why not us?”

Why not, indeed.

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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.