When Vic Schaefer spoke at a press conference in Portland at the NCAA West Regional last March, he thought he would be replacing four starters this season.

This time last year, Vic Schaefer was bidding farewell – or so he thought – to four senior starters who had helped the Bulldogs women’s basketball program become an established national powerhouse. One of those senior starters was a mountain named Teaira McCowan, the most dominant post player in the sport.

Rick Cleveland

After two consecutive Final Fours and a remarkable 132 victories over four seasons, there seemed plenty reason to expect a dramatic nosedive from all that success. In McCowan and Anriel Howard, Schaefer was losing 33 points and 22 rebounds per game.

But that nosedive has not happened. Not at all.

No, when the Bulldogs toppled a really good Arkansas team 92-83 – and it wasn’t that close – Thursday night, it was their 24th victory against just five defeats. They are a Top 10 team nationally, already guaranteed a No. 2 seed in the Southeastern Conference Tournament next week in Greenville, South Carolina.

Her coach believes Rickea Jackson (5) should be national freshman of the year.

You can make the case – and I will – that this is the best coaching job Schaefer has done since he came to State in 2012. Think about it: He did have to replace three players who started all 36 games a year ago. The average age of this year’s State squad, says Schaefer, is 19. That’s what you expect to have at Hinds Community College, not the SEC.

And yet, with a 13-person roster that includes four freshmen and four sophomores, these Bulldogs keep winning. It is a difficult balancing act: Trying to teach, correct mistakes, and stress work ethic without bruising young egos and destroying confidence. But every time you think that lack of experience is about to catch up with State, they respond with a performance like the one Thursday night.

Early in the season, they lost back to back games to No. 3 Stanford and West Virginia. But they then reeled off eight consecutive victories. On Jan. 20, they blew a nine-point lead and lost on the road to No. 1 ranked South Carolina 81-79. Three nights later, they won by 16 at Vanderbilt, the first of six straight SEC victories, five by double digits.

Perhaps the Bulldogs’ worst loss came at home Sunday when unranked Alabama surprised them, 66-64. (Don’t look now but nobody wants to play vastly improved Alabama next week.) Afterward, Schaefer criticized his team’s toughness and lack of “someone who will step up when the going gets tough.”

So then, naturally, everyone stepped up against Arkansas. Tough? Star freshman Rickea Jackson gutted out 16 minutes playing with strep throat, two days after she had been quarantined. More on her later.

If the Bulldogs win Sunday – as they will be heavily favored to do at Ole Miss – that will mean the achievement of 25 victories in a season for the sixth consecutive season. How’s that for sustained success?

We began this piece with the fact that this time last year Schaefer thought he would be replacing four starters. He got one of those back in August, when Jordan Danberry, a graduate guard was granted another year of eligibility. Danberry, as quick and fast a female athlete as these eyes have seen, has been invaluable with her 12.3 points per game, tenacious on-ball defense and a team-leading 72 steals.

This time last year, Schaefer was saying good-bye to Teaira McCowan and her nightly double-double.

Nobody was going to singularly replace the remarkable McCowan, but sophomore Jessica Carter has contributed 14 points and nine rebounds per game in the post. And then there’s Jackson, the rookie, who Schaefer believes should be the national freshman of the year.

Compare Jackson’s freshman numbers with those of Victoria Vivians, the former All-American, who won the Gillom Trophy as Mississippi’s top women’s player all four of her seasons at State. As a freshman, Vivians scored 14.9 points per game, while shooting 37 percent from the field and adding five rebounds per game. Jackson, who is 18 years young, averages 14.7 points and five rebounds per game while shooting 48 percent from the floor. Other than Jackson’s superior shooting, those numbers are eerily similar.

Says Schaefer, “Before it’s over, Rickea might be the best ever.”

That’s coming from a man who is nothing if not a perfectionist. During our Friday morning conversation he bemoaned his team’s immaturity, the fact that they don’t yet know how to follow a scouting report, and that they are prone to lapses on the defensive end.

And while much of that is true, they are also 24 and 5, almost certain to host a first-round NCAA sub-regional and a team that could get hot and go deep into the NCAA Tournament.

The scary part: They should be even better over the next couple of seasons when maybe a couple of them will be old enough to legally buy a beer.

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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.