PORTLAND — At first glance, they appear a female version of Mutt and Jeff. One, center Teaira McÇowan, stands as about the tallest, biggest, strongest player in the land. She dwarfs the other, point guard Jazzmun Holmes, who might be the smallest player on her team but one of the fastest in the country.
Both showed why they might be the best players at their positions in the USA Friday night, leading the top-seeded Mississippi State Bulldogs to a 76-53 victory over Arizona State. The victory puts State into the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight for the third consecutive year.
McCowan scored 22 points, 15 in the fourth quarter, pulled down 13 rebounds, and became the all-time leading rebounder in NCAA Tournament history. Holmes scored 13 points, passed out seven assists and did not turn the ball over a single time against Arizona State’s pressure defense. It was about as perfect a game as you will ever see a point guard play.
Arizona State’s game plan was as simple as it was brutal: Keep the ball away from McCowan, whatever it takes, including something close to assault and battery. Coach Charli Turner Thorne said as much afterward. “We wanted to make somebody else have to beat us,” she said.
And so she surrounded McCowan with players, often two or three at a time. They pushed her. They leaned on her, sandwiched her, pushed her, bodied her, squeezed her – you name it. And, for a while, it worked. At halftime, McCowan had taken one shot, scored two points. After three quarters, she had seven points.
But then, two things happened. One, the fouls mounted and Arizona State players began to exit. Two, while the Devils tired of trying to move her, McCowan seemingly got stronger. State outscored Arizona State 22-8 in the fourth quarter. McCowan outscored Arizona State 15-8.
“I know that at some point my teammates are going to knock down shots,” McCowan said. “Then, they’ll start fading off. From three players on me, it will be two and then one on one. I just got to play it smart.”
She did. So did Holmes. Post-game, Schaefer didn’t wait for anyone to ask questions before he started praising her.
“If there’s a better point guard in the country that brings the ball up the court, handles her team, gets her team into an offense, guards on the other end, you’r welcome to tell me who that is,” Schaefer said. “She’s number one in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio. She’s number one in the other most important stat, which is the W. Her team is 33-2 with four new starters… She was tremendous. Again, our team goes as she goes on both ends of the floor.”
And Holmes goes fast, really fast – but always under control. Arizona State guards you and always tries to pressure the ball. Holmes played 39 minutes, 22 seconds of a 40-minute game against that kind of defense without turning the ball over. Try that some time.
The only thing that might have been more amazing than Holmes’ ball security might have been the way McÇowan controlled her emotions. She really was abused, almost like a blocking dummy or a boxer’s heavy bag. In past years – or even earlier this season, she might have lost her temper and her poise.
“I know I have to keep a cool head a little bit for my teammates, as well as my coaching staff,” she said. “I know I can’t go out there and do something crazy and get a technical foul and be sitting on the bench because that’s not what my team needs.”
That has to be easier said than done. Friday night, she did it, splendidly.
And so, Sunday, State will face Oregon for the right to go to a third straight Final Four. In an 82-74 victory over State on Dec. 18 at Eugene, Ore, the Ducks held McCowan to five shots and five points by playing with very much the same strategy Arizona State played.
Schaefer firmly believes McCowan has grown and matured as a player since then.
We don’t have to wait long to find out just how much.