Mississippi State had just broken the pre-practice huddle when Teaira McCowan (left) and Anriel Howard (right) saw a friendly photographer and smiled and mugged for the lens. Jazzmun Holmes, foreground, apparently wasn’t as impressed.

PORTLAND – OK, this is where it gets dicey. The pretenders all have fallen. Sixteen teams remain in the NCAA Women’s Tournament. The strong have survived. From this point, any team can win any game – and one of these 16 is four victories away from a national championship.

Next up for Mississippi State: The Arizona State Sun Devils, and this is one time Coach Vic Schaefer doesn’t have to preach to his women about how dangerous this Round of 16 foe is. They already know.

Rick Cleveland

They’ve seen the Sun Devils up close and personal. They played the Devils 16 months ago in the Cancun Challenge. State outscored the Arizonans 22-12 in the fourth quarter to win 65-57 in women’s basketball’s version of a knock-down, drag-out that had both teams gasping and in need of ice packs at the end.

All five Sun Devil starters and top reserves from that game will be on the floor Friday at the Moda Center, where the Bulldogs and Devils go at it in an 8 p.m. (CDT) game that will be broadcast by ESPN2. The Bulldogs appeared loose and confident during Thursday’s pre-tournament media sessions and workout. But they also know the difficult task that awaits.

State returns only one starter – Teaira McCowan – from that game, but you know the story about how Schaefer re-loaded rather than went through a rebuilding process.

“Tough, physical, aggressive,” were the words Schaefer used to describe the Sun Devils who have used the same starting lineup for 60-plus consecutive games.

He could have been describing his own team.

In fact, veteran Arizona State coach Charli Turner Thorne did use almost identical adjectives to describe 32-2 Mississippi State. She added another: “Tenacious.”

Both teams grind on defense, pride themselves on defense. Arizona State, 22-10, allowed only 57 points a game. Opponents shot only 40 percent against the Devils. State allows 61 points a game and opponents shot 40 percent against the Bulldogs.

On the season, State has been by far the better offensive team, which is why the Bulldogs are a 12.5-point betting favorite. Know this before you give the 12.5: Only once in 32 games this season did a team beat the Sun Devils that badly, and that was No. 7 Stanford playing on its home floor. Arizona State played a schedule loaded with Top 25 foes and there was just that one 21-point blowout.

Just look at how the Sun Devils got to Portland. Last week, they played in the Coral Gables, Fla., sub-regional on the Miami Hurricanes’ home floor. Arizona State was the only non-Florida team in the event and the fifth-seeded Devils beat UCF 60-45 and then shocked host Miami 57-55. That’s right: In February, Miami was good enough to beat No. 2 Louisville at Louisville and was good enough to beat defending national champion Notre Dame in Miami. But in March, Miami couldn’t handle Arizona State when it mattered most on its home floor.

Vic Schaefer answers questions at Thursday’s NCAA press conference in Portland.

“You have to take your hat off to them, beating a higher seed on their home floor,” Schaefer said. “That tells you something. They’re playing extremely well.”

So is State. Since losing to Missouri Feb. 14 in what Schaefer is now calling “the Valentine’s Day massacre,” State has won 10 straight, all but one by 14 or more points. The Bulldogs cruised through their own sub-regional, thrashing Southern and Clemson by a combined 188-107.

During the 10-game winning streak, All-American center Teaira McCowan has averaged 21.3 points and 13 rebounds a game. Against Clemson Sunday night, she scored 30 points and added 11 rebounds and six blocked shots.

“Locked in,” is how Schaefer described the one he calls Big Tea.

As is so often the case, McCowan would appear the biggest difference between the two teams. At 6 feet, 7 inches and remarkably fit, she will cast a shadow on the Sun Devils’ tallest starter, 6-3 Charnea Johnson-Chapman. You can expect to see the Devils use two or three different players, often two at a time, on McCowan, who scored 15 points and had 14 rebounds against the Devils in Cancun.

“We just have to be more aggressive than her,” said Kianna Ibis, the Devils’ 6-1 forward who will share defensive duties with Johnson-Chapman and 6-1 Shophia Elinga on McCowan.

Said Elinga, “I think we just have to in the first minute of the game just set the tone and play really, really physical with her, because I think that’s something that can really bother her.”

We shall see. McCowan has had smaller people hanging on her all season – mostly to no avail. To listen to Schaefer, few State opponents, if any, have had the combination of athleticism and toughness Arizona State possesses.

“They’re able to match (McCowan’s) capabilities,” Schaefer said. “You might look at them and go, ‘Well, they’re not 6-7’…. Trust me, they are physically capable of handling her. We’ve seen it before.”

Not lately.

Nevertheless, one more word of caution to those who expect State to chalk up another easy victory. The Pac 12 had made a solid case in the NCAA Tournament of being the best, deepest league in the land. Five of the 16 teams still playing are from the Pac 12. Three are from the SEC. And, should State beat Arizona State, the most likely foe on Sunday would be another Pac 10 power, Oregon, who already owns a victory over State.

Nobody said it was going to be easy.

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Rick Cleveland

Rick Cleveland

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 12 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.