Lady Bulldogs realistic NCAA contendersBy RICK CLEVELAND,
Vic Schaefer’s Mississippi State Bulldogs have advanced to the championship game of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament for two consecutive years, an amazing feat. So, you know what the next step is.
But, honestly, did anyone think the Bulldogs could do it this year?
I mean, they lost their leading scorer and All-American Victoria Vivians, the four-time C Spire Gillom Trophy winner. They lost Roshundra Johnson, their third leading scorer. They lost Blair Schaefer, their leading three-point shooter, who really was like a coach on the floor. And they lost Morgan William, their starting point guard and their assists leader.
That’s right: They lost four starters, four terrific players, who provided 48 points per game and about 90 percent of their three-point shooting. What’s more, they lost Chloe Bibby, one of their top reserves last year and a 12 points per game scorer through the first 18 games this season, to a season-ending knee injury.
Nobody can lose that much firepower and return to the Final Four, much less win it. Can they?
I didn’t think so. But it may be time to re-think that.
Sunday, the Bulldogs administered proud Tennessee a 91-63 defeat, the worst SEC loss in history for the proud Vols. The victory lifted the Bulldogs to 22-1 on the season, a perfect 10-0 in the SEC. State has won 11 straight since an 82-74 road loss to Oregon on December 18.
There are several reasons to re-think that, starting with literally the biggest: 6-foot-7 post player Teaira McCowan, the lone returning starter, who is playing the best basketball of her career. Nobody else has a force quite like her. An All-American last year, she is better this time around, averaging 17.2 points, 13.7 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game. She changes the game is what she does. She frees her teammates for shots because opponents have to concentrate so much on her. She alters so many more shots than she blocks – and she causes so many more shots never to be taken. She dominates the paint.
That’s one reason. Vic Schaefer, himself, is another. Clearly, he has become one of the top three or four coaches in the women’s game. His team always plays hard and with a purpose. They defend, they rebound and they take good shots. He has that rare quality all superior coaches have. As demanding as he is – and it’s hard to imagine anyone more so – his players seem to love and respect him.
Anriel Howard, a graduate transfer from Texas A&M, is still another crucial reason for the Bulldogs’ success. The team’s best athlete, she contributes 15 points and eight rebounds a game. You don’t fully replace a player such as Vivians, but Howard has come about as close as you can to replacing a consensus All-American.
Perhaps the most overlooked part of State’s 22-1 start is the remarkable play of the guards. William, Johnson and Blair Schaefer are all gone, but Jazzmun Holmes, Jordan Danberry and Bre’Amber Scott have filled all those roles nicely. Danberry, who averaged two points per game last season, is scoring at a 13.3 clip this year. Her on-ball defense is tenacious. She has sprinter’s speed and her shot has really improved. You can say the same about Holmes, who shared point guard duties with William in a reserve capacity last year, but has bettered her game this time around. She gets the ball where it is supposed to go and she does it while averaging five assists and just one turnover a game. Scott and Myah Taylor give quality minutes off the bench.
Still another reason for the Bulldog’s success is Andra Espinoza-Hunter, the transfer from UConn, whose minutes have greatly increased since Bibby’s injury. She has averaged 11 points per game over the last four.
Tennessee coach Holly Warlick, who has been part of eight NCAA Championship teams at Tennessee, believes the Bulldogs have what it takes. When asked about the Bulldogs’ national championship hopes post-game Sunday, Warlick responded, “I think they have a great opportunity.
“They have a great inside game and guards who are super quick,” she added. “They’re tough. They grind it out and they are competitors. They have a great shot.”
Rick Cleveland (email@example.com) is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist.