Siroky's SEC Report: State is Elite For the First Time
The first of the two remaining Southeastern Conference women’s basketball teams in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA eliminations, No. 7 Mississippi State eliminated No. 12 Washington of the Pac 12, 75-64, No. 2 over No. 3 in the Oklahoma Regional
South Carolina plays Saturday night against Quinnipiac in the Stockton Regional.
Vic Schaefer stayed with his NCAA lineup, that is keeping only his starting point guard, Morgan William in the first five. But that leaves All-SEC scorer Victoria Vivians and center Chimwe Okorie on the bench as top-quality reserves.
“You’re the most successful class in the history of the school for one reason and one reason only, you’ve earned everything,” Schaefer told his team before leaving the locker room. “You have not been given anything.”
Both defenses packed it in to start. Mississippi State had to be aware of the all-time best scorer in the nation Kelsey Plum. Washington started with four 3s, two by Plum. She later set the NCAA record for most free throws made in a career.
One of the new State starters, Breanna Richardson, had two fouls and was out when it was 14-7. Blair Schaefer had hit a 3 for Mississippi State.
Okorie came in, a starter for 33 games. Washington was hitting 71 percent from the floor. The deficit remained seven, 20-13 at the break.
In came Vivians, which meant the usual starters were fighting the fight. They erased the lead and fashioned a tie at 22. Vivians had a quick seven.
Schaefer’s defense also arrived. Plum had the two 3s in the first three and a half minutes and not another basket afterwards.
State put a single-digit defense on them in the 25-9 second quarter. Vivians had nine as eight State players scored.
Washington came back with a 21-10 third, so each side had showed a dominating defensive quarter.
Plum had 20, 7-of-18 from the field to get there. Vivians was worse, 5-of-13.
Would either settle in or were the defenses that good? State was 12 better on rebounds but it didn’t seem to matter.
It was all about the defense.
The fourth was all forged in the SEC battles. The arguments about who needs to start are diluted. Schaefer’s plan to start 6-7 sophomore Teaira McCowan in the middle paid off.
She had 20 points in the fourth. Washington had 14. She finished with 27 and 13 rebounds with five blocks. Mississippi State won rebounds by 17.
Vivians finished with13, the second-best Bulldog scorer with the third-most minutes.
Plum scored 29, but 10-of-25 from the field. She can pack up the 3,527 points and head out. Mississippi State will take the collective effort of 10 scorers and head on.
McCowan said, “I knew coming into the game, I knew I could step up and be that player.
“We had to guard the perimeter. Knowing to be in the right spot at the right time.”
The love for teammates stops any talk of who starts or even who gets playing time.
“It’s all for my seniors,” McCowan said “They built Mississippi State up from what it wasn’t to what it is. It’s all for them.”
At the end, Schaefer and Washington coach Mike Neighbors remain friends of more than decades, having both assisted the best coach in the SEC, Gary Bair, and that won’t change.
Washington made the Final Four last season but Mississippi State is a game away with an entire team.
They have yet to lose a game outside of conference. Thirty-two wins is the continuing program high.
Mississippi State was right on its season offensive average. But they also hit what Washington had usually allowed.
The difference was Washington came in 21 points under their offensive average. That underlines the Schaefer defensive schemes.
“I was so proud they were able to take all of this in three days on defense,” he said. “It wasn’t rocket science but there were some things that we needed to do to be successful.
“Our kids were special today. No doubt about that. Dominique (Dillingham) came in and did what she does best. There is a reason why she has been on the SEC’s all-defensive team the last two years.
“Our press wore them down a little bit. Teaira was really special down the stretch. She had the look in her eye. She really wanted the ball and got to her spots.”
He praised his old coaching buddy.
“Mike, as I told y'all, he's a tremendous coach, one of the best. He's got an unbelievable mind for the game. What he's done with Kelsey Plum is really incredible. I mean, she's the best offensive player in the history of the game.
“I said it before. It was like playing against JamesHarden of the Rockets. You got to really be careful about floor spacing. You got to really be careful about allowing lanes to exist. Then you can't come off of those kids that can stand out there and play H-O-RS-E and shoot it.
“We made her work for everything.”
The skills his team displayed on defense came up again and again.
“I thought our press wore them down a little bit,” Schaefer said. “Then, Teaira, I jumped on her back when we got in the locker room, because I felt like she was carrying us most of the night.
“Offensively she was really special down the stretch. Had that look in her eye, wanted the ball, got to her spots where she needs to get to.
“You know, you hold that team to 64 points, you’re playing your guts out. It ain’t like we're standing around playing ‘Hope you miss’ defense.
“I couldn't be prouder of our kids for their energy, their effort. We talk about being connected, having chemistry on that end. That's the piece that doesn't
come early in a season.
“Your defensive cohesiveness and your chemistry, it's not the first thing, it's the last thing.
“This group is really doing a good job right now.”
Dillingham was the first line of defense against Plum.
“Plum is just an amazing player,” Dillingham said. “It was a great battle all night long. My teammates helped me out a lot. We were able to switch a lot of things, which helped me personally. My team just did a good job of sealing up the line. We had umbrella defense.
“Everybody was there to help. It was just a team effort, I think.”
McCowan said she listened to encouragement from her teammates.
“Well, they told me, they said, ‘T, you got to dominate.’ Just taking that in, listening to my teammates, knowing I had to step up, take my team, like, further, that's when I had the look.
“You have to do what your teammates are asking you to do.”
She ranked the experience.
“I think the blocks would come first, then the points, then the high fives. No, the high fives would come first, knowing my teammates are proud of me, then the blocks, then the points.”
Dillingham said, “I think she just put us on her back, honestly. Once she got going, it's hard to stop her, honestly. She was running from transition, so she was getting a lot of rebounds since nobody was there to block her out.
“Once she gets rebounding, no one is going to block her shot. It was an easy bucket for her. She was getting the out and ones. She loves that turnaround jump shot. When she gets those tips, she's money from that spot. When she's scoring for us, I think that gives us all the confidence in the world because we can go inside-out. It makes it that much easier for us guards.
“I think we just finally decided we're going to lock down on defense. I think it was all about playing together. It's not about one person locking down one person, it's about the team locking down them.
“I think when we decided that we were going to guard together, not let them have any easy looks, I think that's when it really started to click.
“I think their first four looks were 3s, made 3s.
“For the rest of the game, I think they only made four. Just after we got them off the line, stopped them from making 3s, we were fine.”
Her coach agrees.
“I wasn't real pleased with how we started the ballgame,” he said. “I was disappointed in our
energy defensively. We had a major lapse on an out of bounds play. We let the best player in the history of the game have a wide-open 3. Like she said, I mean, their first four made baskets are all 3-pointers.
“It was really frustrating because that's a focal -- that's being focused. We kind of were playing catch-up.
“The second and fourth quarters were special offensively. We obviously got some things going on offense. You score 25 and 27 points in a quarter, you're doing some good things offensively.
“I thought those quarters obviously were the big turning points in both the first half and the second half.”
H said it is all part of building a program.
“Well, as you know, it's only been five short years that we've been here. The last three obviously we've been in the NCAA tournament.
“To be in the Sweet 16 in your second go in the NCAAs is pretty special. This is our third now in five years, and we're in the Elite 8.
“I've got a good team. I'm a little disappointed in the country right now that we're not getting the respect that these kids deserve. It's disappointing.
“This is a heck of a team. We got a bunch of really
good players. We've beaten a bunch of really good people.
“You know, for me, I have so much pride in these girls 'cause I know how hard they work. You stick your head in one of our practices, we ain't standing around out there having water every 10 minutes, you know, getting a towel, all that. I mean, they work their tails off. They pay the price.
“In the locker room after the game, we were all just really happy for each other. I feel like every game this year we've had different people step up. It's really hard to guard a team who you just don't know who to guard, honestly.
“That's what I feel like we have with our team. You don't know who is going to go off, you don't know what they're going to do.
“I feel like we're really proud of each other. We're really proud we're working so well together. We're happy to keep this journey going.”
Dillingham said, “We were really happy in the locker room. Just happy because we know how hard we worked to get to this point. It's a special moment for our team.
“But we're not done yet. Tomorrow, it's time to get to work and focus on the next team we're playing.”
McCowan said, “We're just earning the respect that we should get.”
Schaefer said, “Tonight we kind of emptied the playbook for T. We ran a lot of different things to get her down there. But we wanted to get her to her spots, where she's really comfortable. We flipped the sides of the floor midway through that run, just to give them a different look.
“But, you know, T continues to grow. She's come so far, yet she's got so far to go. Her upside is out of sight. I mean, the kid can be an All-American before it's all said and done. She can dominate the game. As y'all saw tonight, she dominated the game on both ends of the floor. She was interested in dominating the game on both ends of the floor.
“When I can get that out of her, it changes the dynamic of our team. That's the impact that the kid can have.
“Now, if we were all going to sit out here and air out our laundry, she would tell you timeouts were not a lot of fun tonight, just because I was demanding.
“That's because I know what the kid can do. We needed her to step up, but we needed her to step up on both the defensive and offensive end. She'll tell you that.
“Our conferences in the huddle were more about defense than offense. The last thing I said coming out is what we were going to run, that would click, ‘OK, that's for me.’
“The conversation in our huddle all night with Teaira was mostly about defense. You saw the impact the kid can have in a ballgame on both ends. Not many kids can do that. Not many players can have that kind of an impact like T can.
“She knows. I'm not backing off. I'm going to keep coaching her, loving her, and demanding it of her.”
McCowan said, “In practice, we work on boxing out. Long shots have long rebounds. Just putting myself in the position to either box her out and not let her get the ball, or neither one of us get it, and somebody else cleans it up.”
With a smile, Schaefer said, “They’ll tell you I’ve told them at times they're one of the worst defensive teams I've coached.
“It’s just a level of expectation that I have. I know what’s in ’em. You know, she gets six blocks tonight. There’s one little person right here going, ‘Yes, she could have been doing that all year. Why haven't you gotten that out of her all year?’
“ It's just growth for her. I've told them at times, ‘We just don’t have it. We’re just not that good defensively.
“Yet I know, looking at the stats, what the points-per-game number is, it’s pretty good; what the turnovers caused is, it's pretty good; field goal-percentage defense, it’s pretty good.
“I just know what a good one looks like. I think they got it. We ain’t got it yet, but the good thing is the season isn't over.
“I'm still waiting. I’m going to coach them tomorrow, trying to get them to be the best defensive team I can get them to be. I’m not giving up. We're not status quo. We know that.
“We’ve worked all week on getting better. Every minute we want to get one play better.”