STARKVILLE – When Mississippi State stunned mighty UConn and the women’s basketball world two years ago in the Final Four, who was there to spoil the party and win the national championship two nights later?
South Carolina, that’s who.
Last season, when State went through the SEC’s regular season undefeated, who was there to end that amazing victory streak in the SEC Championship game?
South Carolina, that’s who.
A roadblock doesn’t begin to describe what South Carolina has been to Vic Schaefer’s remarkable run as Mississippi State’s women’s basketball coach. But here Thursday night, Schaefer and his seventh-ranked Bulldogs took No. 15 South Carolina’s best shot and batted it away in much the same manner Teaira McCowan often bats away an opponent’s shot. That is, with force and fury.
With McCowan providing 26 points and 24 rebounds, State broke open a close game and ran away from the Gamecocks in the fourth quarter of an 87-74 victory won before an enthused, often thunderous crowd of 10,006 at The Hump.
Listen: McCowan, the senior All-American, had as many rebounds as the entire South Carolina team. She played all 40 minutes. She made nine of 15 field goal attempts. She made eight of nine free throws. She blocked two shots and affected so many others. State won the game in the paint where the Bulldogs out-scored South Carolina 44-22. That was mostly McCowan. State out-rebounded the Gamecocks 49-24. Again, that was mostly McCowan.
It was a performance – televised on ESPN – that should be remembered when it comes time to choose National Player of the Year, an award won by South Carolina’s A’ja Wilson last year, an award that McCowan is much in the running for this year.
State needed all of it, just as it needed Jordan Danbury’s 20 points, seven assists, six rebounds and two steals and Bre’Amber Scott’s 11 points off the bench. That’s because – although South Carolina has dropped a notch or two with the graduation of Wilson – the Gamecocks remain a marvelously talented and extremely well-coached team that can ever more shoot the basketball.
That’s also because State suffered a nightmarish opening minute of the game when Chloe Bibby, probably the team’s most improved player this season and certainly its most dangerous perimeter shooter, went down with what appeared to be a serious knee injury. She was helped from the floor and never returned.
Afterward, Schafer said he hoped for good news. “What happened tonight is what you dread as a coach,” he said. “I’ll be praying all night long.”
But, clearly, he feared the worse, which would be a torn ACL.
Schaefer was emotional when he talked about how hard Bibby, an Australian import, has worked this season and the improvement she has made. She was scoring 13.6 points per game, shooting 45 percent from behind the 3-point arc. If the injury is as serious as Schaefer clearly fears it is, Bibby’s absence will leave a gaping hole in State’s lineup and rotation. Already, State was trying to replace the perimeter shooting of Victoria Vivians, Roshunda Johnson and Blair Schaefer. The loss of Bibby would exacerbate those losses all the more. If Bibby’s out, expect opponents to sag back into the lane and around McCowan even more than they already do.
Scott would appear to be the next woman up for the ‘Dogs. The sophomore from Little Rock had averaged 3.3 points over 10.5 minutes per game before this one. She stepped up huge against the Gamecocks, hitting five of seven shots, one of two treys and scoring 11 points over 27 minutes.
It’s hard to stress how much it helps to have McCowan, the great equalizer, in the middle.
“She’s one of the all-time greatest,” Schaefer said.
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley might have paid an even bigger compliment. Asked how she thought her team handled McCowan (again, 26 points, 24 rebounds, two blocks), Staley replied, “I thought we did the best we could.”
And that speaks volumes, as did McCowan as the post-game press conference closed.
Someone asked, “Have you ever out-rebounded an entire team before.”
McCowan flashed a smile. “I did tonight,” she said.