PORTLAND – On clear days, the graceful white cone of Mt. Hood, located about 54 miles from Portland, dominates the horizon to the east and south. It is gorgeous and it is magnificent, rising well over 11,000 feet.
And I know you wonder where this sports writer is going with that. Funny you should ask. Here Saturday, the day before Mississippi State plays Oregon (ESPN, 1 p.m. CDT) for the right to go to the Final Four, Oregon coach Kelly Graves brought up Mt. Hood to make a point about State’s All-American center Teaira McCowan.
Asked about his defensive plans against State, Graves answered, “Obviously you start with Teaira inside. She’s an incredible player, a movable force so to speak. You look at Mt. Hood out there in the distance, you could put her right next to it because they’re the two tallest things in this area right now. I’m telling you, she’s incredible.”
But McCowan, the leading rebounder in NCAA Tournament history, was anything but incredible back in December when State played Oregon on the Ducks’ Eugene campus. The Ducks limited McCowan to five points and five shots in 34 minutes. The game ended with McCowan on the bench and not because of fouls. She had only two. Vic Schaefer pulled her because she was ineffective. Oregon defeated State 92-84, one of the Bulldogs’ two defeats this season.
Oregon threw everything but the kitchen sink at McCowan that night – and a kitchen sink couldn’t have hurt much worse. They used a 2-3 zone and a 3-2 zone, both sagging on McCowan. They used a man-to-man, but doubled or tripled when the ball went to McCowan. They used a box-and-one.
McCowan has not had many bad games. That one was a stinker. If you watched State’s victory over Arizona State Friday night, and saw how the Sun Devils defensed McCowan, you get some idea of how Oregon did it. They leaned on her, pushed her, doubled and tripled her. Mt. Hood, the volcano, hasn’t erupted to any extent in 200 years, but McCowan nearly erupted that night.
“That was a frustrating night for all of us, certainly for her,” Schaefer said.
“It was just a bad game on my part,” McCowan said. “Their defense is pretty swarming. They threw everything at me and I didn’t react as quick as I would normally. So, I mean, I just have to be prepared for whatever they’re going to throw at me.”
You get the idea that McCowan would like to say, “Well, what do you expect? They hammered me.”
And you get the feeling that State coaches would love to rant about the abuse McCowan receives game after game after game in the paint.
“Y’all ask me about something else,” Schaefer said at one point Saturday. “Y’all are trying to get me in trouble.”
Schaefer did say this: “Y’all saw last night. It’s like that every night for that kid. You just get pounded on and beat on all game long. The kid can take no more shots (for pain). She can’t have any more. My trainer has to do the job with heat and ice. When you think about the course of her career, it’s been hard. It’s been hard for her down there.”
Say this for McCowan, she has learned to handle it better. She had only one shot and two points in the first half against Arizona State. But you didn’t see the same frustration from her you might have seen earlier in the season. She kept playing, kept absorbing the hits – and eventually, she prevailed scoring 15 of her 22 points in the fourth quarter.
“A lot of seniors quit listening after the first half of their season,” Schaefer said. “They think they know it all. Tea keeps growing as a player. She has made herself better.”
She will have to play well Sunday. All the Bulldogs will. Oregon, 32-4 and Pac-12 champions, will be playing with the backing of probably 11,000 fans, compared to about 1,000 State fans who have made the long trip.
They’ll have to do something about Sabrina Ionescu, Oregon’s All-American guard, who lit them up for 29 points, including 17 of 17 from the foul line, in the previous game. Jordan Danberry, who fouled out against Oregon before, probably draws that assignment.
Nevertheless, the key to the game is what happens – and what is allowed to happen – in the paint. McCowan knows what’s coming. How will officials call it? How will McCowan handle it?
Not to oversimplify – but that’s clearly the question – as clear as Mr. Hood to the East on a clear day.