By Mike Siroky
The best team in the best conference made another Sweet 16 in what should be a long string of such accomplishments.
Two others joined them in this qualifying round – including the major national upset -- which is the biggest advance for any league.
One more has a legitimate chance of the three playing Monday night and will cement the difference as to which conference has the most teams alive.
The numbers associated with each team represents the NCAA Regional seedings.
* No. 5 Mississippi State 74, No. 4 Michigan State 72
The glory of this round in this tournament is when the 4 plays the 5, as close as it gets in the round of 32. There are only two such matchups this season.
This State battle technically had the Bulldogs as the visitors at home, another program first as they surpassed the all-time single-season win mark with their 28th.
The state high school tournament bumped the game from East Lansing.
StarkVegas welcomed the opportunity. But what is the difference in site allocation? Two points?
The home team was second in the SEC.
The Spartans were third in the Big Ten, stopping Ohio State but losing to Maryland in the conference tournament.
They had two seniors and a freshman, Octavia Barnes, from Jackson, Miss.
Junior guard Aerial Powers is the all-time leading scorer in the program, with 1,803 after scoring 27 in the opener. She had 20, 20-plus scoring games.
She scored 678 her sophomore season, 683 this season. She averaged 22, one of four in double-figures.
As a team they nearly hit their season average of 76 points scored and 69 allowed. They have been in the tournament six of seven seasons with the current coach. They are 6-2 in the first round. They had won 13 of the past 17.
The game started with tension. All you knew was a state school with the initials MSU would win.
In the opening run, Victoria Vivians had five and Powers scored eight.
Ketara Chapel is a role player for Mississippi State.
She scored eight, twice her season average, to take some pressure off the well-guarded Vivians. It was 19-17, Mississippi State at the first stop.
Who knew Powers was about to be all but shutout by Vivians and the Bulldogs.
Michigan State was hitting 58 percent from the field and still trailed, a good sign for Mississippi State.
Even as the percentage rose to 62 percent in the second quarter, Mississippi State still led by five. Vivians had two fouls, but so did four of five Michigan State starters, including Powers.
It was a well-played game. Who would blink first. Which coach would figure it out? The crowd of a surprising 7,094 was buzzing.
The game flashed into the final minute of the half.
Playmaking sophomore guard Morgan William of Mississippi State kept drawing fouls.
She was 4-of-5 from the line among her nine points. But she had three fouls. No substitution as coach Vic Schaefer gambled.
Vivians assisted on a score, then hit a jumper.
After 6-7 freshman center Teaira McCowan grabbed her fourth rebound, second defensive, Schaefer called a time out with 11 seconds left.
William fed the ever-hustling Dominique Dillingham for a jumper with four seconds left and it was 40-34 the break.
The Bulldogs won both quarters.
Sophomore guard Branndais Agee had 13 points for Michigan State, 4-of-5 from the field, two above her scoring average, to lead everyone.
Now came the third, after coaching adjustments.
After a few tussles, William fed Vivians for a 3. The deficit ballooned to 13, deflated back to seven.
Now McCowan and Dillingham had three fouls. Would it come down to reserves and free throws?
A Spartan forward had four fouls and a guard three. Each side had 15 personals.
Mississippi State lost the quarter, 18-11, but needed every point. Michigan State was in a run of 20 unanswered.
That control pushed it to a five-point edge with 8:17 left. The game was stuck for almost two minutes. Vivians made two free throws. Powers assisted on a layup. Vivians took a William feed for a 3. Back to a four-point deficit, but one team appeared more confident.
Breanna Richardson made a free throw, then a layup on a Vovians feed and Mississippi State was up by one.
The Bulldogs aggressively had fourth fouls by Dillingham and McCowan. Four minutes to go on someone’s season.
Two free throws and the Spartans led by one.
Powers missed and Mississippi State’s 5-10 sophomore guard Kayla Nevitt got the rebound. She had 35 all season.
Everyone was focused and contributing.
Richardson got a defensive rebound, shuffled it to Vivians who was fouled by Powers. She hit one free throw and it was tied. The rebounder of the miss turned it over.
Vivians missed a 3 but Chinwe Okorie got the offensive rebound and was fouled.
She made both free throws. Mississippi State was ahead by one for just as long as it took Tori Jankoska to hit a 3 for a one-point lead with three minutes left.
Back came Vivians with a 3 off another William assist.
Powers missed a 3, Jankoska fouled Nevitt on the rebound and she surpassed her season scoring average by hitting both for four points.
It was 69-67 when Vivians fouled Janoska. She tied it with two free throws.
There were 97 seconds left.
Vivians and Powers each missed shots but Vivians got the rebound.
Then came the shot that will be revered for all time in Starkville.
Richardson had two 3s all season. She hit the biggest of her career, a 20-footer with 36 seconds left. It made it 72-69, Mississippi State.
Then she fouled.
Michigan State twice regained possession off a missed free throw. They made one.
William had made a commitment to not foul out. Jankoska fouled her and she hit both to make it a four-point edge with 22 seconds left.
McCowan fouled out, joining Okorie and Dillingham.
Michigan State hit two free throws. Vivians was fouled and twice missed.
Michigan State missed two hurried shots.
Then the lone senior on Mississippi State, Sherise Williams, got the one blocked shot she needed for a final home roar.
William wrapped the ball up and Mississippi State started dancing in the aisles.
They had held Powers to no points her final quarter, 14 for the game, harassed into six turnovers.
Vivians played all 40 minutes and scored 24, with five 3s, seven points past her average. Her team had points from eight players.
So what if the lovely parting gift is UConn next in their home state. It’s the second Sweet 16 in program history.
“How about them ’Dogs,” said Schaefer. “Praise the Lord and praise the ’Dogs Just no quit. We went empty so many trips.
"Then we started guarding because we looked like we were not going to score ever again this month.
“I am sure it was a fun game to watch and I am so grateful to all our fans. But it was something else to coach.
“ I put (Vivians) on their best player and I told them you know what, we’re not going to win without scoring. At the end of the third quarter we started attacking and then we attacked the whole fourth.
“Let me tell you something about that kid (Richardson). She works real hard on her shot. All I wanted to impress on her, on all of them, is that sometimes we think our problems are bigger than we are. Just go play. This is Bre.
“She was ready for the moment and ready because of her preparation.”
She said, “It was just the fact I was wide open. We had a rotation and I was like ‘throw it back, throw it back.’ Then I made it and I said “Whoo!”
“I practice my shots all the time. Coach says all the time, be ready on the bench when your name is called. Know the game plan and just be ready.”
Mississippi State is 33-3 at home in Vivians’ two seasons. They are 22-1 when they win rebounds. They had four more this game.
“Our kids were just a little bit more,” said Schaefer.
“We play a game called Bulldog every day. There’s runs both ways. You gotta push it, push it. There is no halfcourt game. I didn’t call time out in the 20-0 run and maybe people will ask why. I may look at the film and wonder why.
“Morgan took a foul with about a minute left in the third and from then on we were ourselves once again.”
“I felt like had I no space,” said Vivians. “So I thought I make shots from the 3 all the time, so step back and do it.”
Schaefer said he wished he could shake hands with every one of the fans. “We don’t win if we aren’t home. Their coach said it sounded like 14-20,00 and I appreciate that. It’s what our game needs.”
*No. 1 South Carolina 73, No. 9 Kansas State 47
Continuing the crusade of proving their worth to the NCAA seeding Committee who gave them the third place destination despite being the second-best seed in America, State took the whipping from the Gamecocks.
They were sixth in a much-weaker conference, the Big 12.
It was the first tournament appearance since 2012, so the contrast of experience was also mammoth with a new coach, Jeff Mittie since then.
A senior celebrating her final home game, Tiffany Mitchell, scored 16 of 20 in the first half as top-seeded South Carolina opened a big lead and breezed into the their fourth Sweet 16 in five seasons.
The Gamecocks’ defense is tuned up in what has become a 33-1 season. They get another team which won its home qualifying games, Syracuse (27-7) on Friday.
Junior all-conference player Breanna Lewis, a 6-5 center, scored 21 for State, four above her average. The SC starters took lots of breaks.
Alaina Coates had 14 points and 10 rebounds, her second straight double-double in the NCAA Tournament and 19th of the season, all in 21 minutes.
A'ja Wilson was called for two fouls less than two minutes into the game and so was limited from the start. She played 15 minutes.
Mitchell’s banked shot at the halftime buzzer made it 45-26. It was over and everyone knew it.
Mitchell accepted big hugs from her teammates -- and a rousing ovation from the 10,048 fans -- when she left the court at Colonial Life Arena for a final time.
The senior helped the Gamecocks go 47-1 at home the past three seasons, the lone defeat to NCAA Tournament favorite UConn, 66-54, last month.
“We were able to salute and honor our seniors because we’re playing our best basketball” said coach Dawn Staley. “They have been the cornerstone of our program for the past four years, and it was only right to have 10,000 people send them off with the kind of ovation that they gave.”
The attendance was the best anywhere. They led the nation all season.
* No. 7 Tennessee 75, No 2 Arizona State 64
Other than the historical low seeding, this Tennessee team landed, at the end, in the middle of the program’s historical pack.
UT had a nice multi-year run wherein anyone who played four years made at least one Final Four.
That ended seasons ago as the Pat Head Summitt-coached teams slipped since 2008 and have not yet recovered under the new regime.
Then again, no other league team has won a National Title, so UT still owns one marquee stat.
The Lady Vols have won at least 20 for 39 straight seasons and have been in all the NCAA tournaments.
They also are now in the program’s 34th sweet 16, having never lost a second-round game. They have won four the past five this season, losing in the conference quarterfinals.
Holly Warlick was a four-year All-American player as a walk-on, 27-season assistant and now three-year coach after one year as the game coach after Summitt took ill her final season.
She is now the seventh-winningest coach, with 107 victories, of any in a third season.
Arizona State, the Pac 12 champs playing against the seventh-best in the SEC looked lost.
The Sun Devils nudged past the 58 points allowed but allowed more than the 65 points per game scoring average.
Diamond DeShields has completed her sophomore slump season with 18 starts in 34 games and 14 points per. She and seniors-to-be Jordan Reynolds and Andray Carter will be the nucleus next season.
For this finally a win of importance, Tennessee limited the home team to 39 percent from the field and won three quarters, sprinting away from a halftime tie wit a 42-31 run after intermission.
All those conference coaches who praised the Lady Vols when they were struggling look mighty smart right now. Whether they can stall one if the rising programs in the nation, No. 2 seed Ohio State in the opposite bracket from South Carolina, is the next test.
Despite claiming its highest seed in school history, Arizona State dropped three of its final four.
DeShields led all scorers with 24 on 9-of-17 shooting. Her dad, former Major League player Delino DeShields, cheered her on from courtside.
Mercedes Russell scored half of the first 20 – 4-of-4 from the field, 2-of-2 from the line -- and joined Reynolds with a dozen each; Nared scored 11.
The Vols outscored the Sun Devils in the paint, 42-27. They hit 64 percent in the opening quarter. For the game, they settled on 52 percent from the field and 16-of-18 from the free throw line.
Despite numerous attempts by State, UT was never behind in the second half.
When Arizona State finally got the deficit to four with 7:05 remaining, DeShields scored on consecutive possessions and Reynolds added a jumper that stretched the UT lead back to 10.
Senior Bashaara Graves scored eight to pass Dena Head for 22nd all-time in career points at 1,483. She led the team in rebounding for the 16th time this year and 51st time in her career as she pulled down double-digit rebounds for the 12th time on the season.
DeShields scored in double digits for the 26th time and had more than 20 for the ninth time this year.
Russell scored in double figures for the 19th time this season.
“We set a lot of ball screens for Diamond, ” Warlick said. “She is so good coming off the ball screen. The first half, she tried to do too much.
“For us it’s huge to take care of the basketball and that was one of our goals, to give us more opportunities.”
“We could have easily folded and given up on our season and it’s just a credit to how every person on this team is a fighter,” said Nared. “We just kept fighting.”
“Getting this win is huge for us,” DeShields said. “It’s just another chance for us to keep moving forward, another chance for us to prove people wrong, another chance to pursue our ultimate goal.”
“Ask any coach, that was the team they didn’t want to play. For us, possibly the worst possible matchup we could have asked for,” Arizona State coach Charli Turner Thorne said.
Elisha Davis led them with 18, but Warlick had a good scouting report as she coached her in the World University Games this past summer. Russell and DeShields were teammates. “She is just a special player. She opened with a 3 and I was a little worried but we made her work.”
*No. 1 Baylor 84, No 9 Auburn 52
Having accomplished the goal of 20 wins and entry to the round of 32, the Tigers had the top seed on their home court. It went about as expected. Baylor blew right past the average points allowed, 59, and held the Tigers to 11 below their offensive average.
As a point guard, Baylor coach Kim Mulkey made the 1984 Olympics Gold team coached by Pat Head Summitt and previously had led Louisiana Tech to national championships.
She has won two more as a coach and is therefore in the women’s Hall of Fame. They have lost only once this season and so swept the Big 12.
Nina Davis scored a season-high 30 and freshman center Kalani Brown 16.
“We knew that Nina was going to be open most of the time in that middle. We did exactly what our game plan was set for,” said Alexis Jones. She scored 16 points, with seven steals and six assists.
“Probably yesterday at practice,” junior forward Davis responded was asked when she knew their plan was going to work. “It played out exactly how we played it in practice and we just kept attacking, and it kept working all night.”
The Lady Bears are 35-1 and take a 22-game winning streak to Dallas, in the NBA Dallas Mavericks' home arena about 100 miles from campus. Baylor could meet Texas A&M, if the Aggies survive at home tonight.
Brandy Montgomery had 14 points and lone senior Tra'cee Tanner 13, which were their average outputs. The 84 points were the most they allowed this season.
“I know how she gets ’em. . . I liked Nina Davis when she was playing high school, when she was playing AAU,” said Auburn coach Terry Terri Williams-Flournoy. “She's got a motor that’'s unbelievable. I just looked at the box score, and she scored 30 points. It's easy for her to score 30 points ’cause she plays so hard. She's getting to the floor. She's running in transition. I want me one of those.
“I’m just so proud of my team,” she said. “No one expected us to be here. Their hard work and dedication to Auburn and their dedication to how we play just shows once again just how good of a team we are.”
That was not hyperbole. L
Auburn was picked to finish 13th in the SEC by the coaches. That they made it to the Round of 32 is an accomplishment, as was winning a 20th game in the NCAA opener.