Oregon guard Sabrina Ionescu, reacts to a basket against Mississippi State during the second half of Sunday’s regional final in the NCAA women’s college basketball tournament Sunday. Ionescu  had 31 points, eight assists and seven rebounds. 

PORTLAND – Losers often play the blame game. Sunday, Vic Schaefer wasn’t playing.

Schaefer might have blamed Mississippi State’s 88-84 defeat to Oregon on the playing site. Why should a No. 1 seed be playing across the continent before 11,000 or so of the No. 2 seed’s fans, 100 miles from the 2-seed’s campus?

“Here’s the thing,” Schaefer said. “We probably could have played it somewhere else and been on a completely neutral floor and played in front of a thousand people. Do we want that or do we want to play in that environment today? You know what, I liked playing out there today. I think my kids liked playing out there today. I was proud to be a coach in that game today.”

He might have blamed it on the officiating. Officials let the teams play in the first, second and fourth quarters. In the third, for some reason, a light tap became a foul. Teaira McCowan picked up three. But Schaefer wasn’t blaming that either, although he sure did yell at the officials a lot.

Schaefer found blame with one person. “I’m disappointed in myself,” Schaefer said. “I pride myself on being a pretty good defensive coach. We gave up 88 points tonight. You’re not supposed to win those quite frankly.”

Rick Cleveland

He’s right. But any lack of defense wasn’t a lack of effort. The Bulldogs played hard, guarded hard. All you can do is get a hand in their face and Oregon made shots all night with hands in the shooter’s face. That’s why State’s season ends at 33-3, one game short of a third straight Final Four. Oregon, 33-4, advances.

So, you still want to blame someone? I’ve got your public enemy No. 1: S-a-b-r-i-n-a.

Sabrina Ionescu is her full name, and she wasn’t going to let the Ducks lose this game. She hit 12 of 20 shots from the field, 5 of 8 from beyond the arc. She scored 31 points. She passed out eight assists. She contributed seven rebounds. She beat the Bulldogs is what she did.

“I thought she made some really tough shots at the end of the shot clock,” Schaefer said. “That’s what great players do. They’re going to make shots when your team needs it. I thought she was really hard to guard.”

Mississippi State head coach Vic Schaefer didn’t blame officiating after being denied a third straight trip to the Final Four, but he did yell a lot, especially in the third quarter when Teaira McCowan picked up three fouls. 

Ionescu often had two of the best defensive guards in the country – Jordan Danberry and Jazzmun Holmes chasing her, dogging her every step. Didn’t matter. She hit long-range jumpers and drove to the bucket for others. Yes, she said, she was fueled by the crowd.

“The floor was shaking,” Ionescu said. “I got goosebumps hearing them, how loud they are, supporting us. We’re definitely not taking that for granted.”

The teams were all even at 59 entering the fourth quarter. Lately, the fourth quarter has been when McCowan has worn the other team down and where State takes over the game. In this fourth quarter. Ionescu scored 12 of her 31 and Oregon hit 10 of its 14 shots from the floor.

It’s hard to beat 10 out of 14. You almost never will.

Sometimes, there is no blame. Sometimes, you just have to credit the other guy – or woman.

McCowan, State’s All-American scored 19 points, rebounded 15 times and blocked four shots.

It wasn’t enough.

Jazzmun Holmes, the point guard, passed out 13 assists, scored 15 points and did not commit a single turnover.

It wasn’t enough.

All five State starters scored in double figures. As a team, State committed only six turnovers.

It wasn’t enough.

Oregon coach Kelly Graves said he had never coached in a game where the level of play – from both teams – was at such a high level. “Best game I’ve ever been a part of,” he said.

The team that lost the game shot 48.4 percent and committed just six turnovers.

“I don’t think I’ve ever coached a game when my team made only six turnovers and we lost,” Schaefer said.

Sometimes, you just have to credit the other team.

This was that day.

State didn’t play poorly. Indeed, the Bulldogs played hard and played well.

Oregon was just better.

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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.