With an unblemished 7-0 record, Vic Schaefer’s Bulldogs reached the third round of the Gulf Coast Showcase last weekend riding high and ready to roll through another opponent, Middle Tennessee this time.
Just three days later, MSU hosted Louisiana Lafayette in their first game since their first loss. Schaefer invited me to join them in the locker room and on the bench as guest coach.
I walked into the locker room 45 minutes before the game and found him going over notes and charts as he waited for his team to file in for a pre-game talk.
“Just getting in some last minute review,” he told me.
Then, the team arrived and Schaefer went into coach zone, opening dry erase boards, going over numbers, objectives and the like.
Interestingly, he unveiled one board with four game scores on it – the results from each match-up Middle Tennessee had with an SEC team this year.
The first three: big SEC wins over the Blue Raiders.
The fourth: MSU losing.
“How much do you care?” he asked his team. “The game before Middle, James Madison took you for granted. They slapped you in the face, but you turned around and punched them.”
The message, of course, being that his team had to play like that every game, no matter what conference an opponent comes from. He wants his team to play hard and with passion every night, no matter how tired they may be.
“If one of you doesn’t get down the court,” he said, “we’ll just put four players in and press them that way.”
How would his team respond? Both to loss and to his exhortment mixed with Xs and Os preparation.
“We’ve got a sportswriter in the locker room with us,” Schaefer told the team, motioning to me. “What’s he gonna write about? That’s up to you.”
The game began as I watched from behind an animated and intense Schaefer, getting after his team regularly as the Bulldogs came out to a slow, sluggish start, their first basketball action since the loss and their fifth game in nine days.
“Stick that ball straight over your head!” he yelled at someone on the opposite side of the court.
“I mean I want a train wreck, you hear me?” came another cry.
“That’s two selfish plays,” he explained to someone on the bench. “No denial and then you didn’t tell your teammates who they’re guarding.”
At halftime, MSU only led 28-27, and was honestly lucky to have a lead at all, no matter how small.
Something happened at halftime, though. The re-grouping was good for Schaefer’s squad, a chance for him to either wake them up or re-teach a lesson.
His Bulldogs came out firing in the second half, led by freshman guard Dominique Dillingham and her career-high 19 points. MSU went on to take down ULL 78-51, outscoring the Ragin’ Cajuns 50-24 in the second half.
I followed the team into the meeting room after the game feeling pretty good. MSU won by 27, responded to halftime adjustments and got the win they needed despite being so worn out.
This should be a fun post-game celebration.
Schaefer, however, was not so pleased.
“Last year,” he began,” we’d have been tickled pink with this. But we’re better!
“There’s no justification for how we played in the first half.
“We play in the biggest, baddest league in the country. If we don’t change, this is all a lie.”
He went on to tell them what they did right and what they did wrong, as well as concede his own faults for not coaching better in moments and times when he felt he should have.
His team is good, as he told them, and fatigue is a legitimate concern at this point, the very reason he gave them the following day off from practice, as well. But Schaefer knows what lies ahead, too, with the conference schedule waiting on the other side of Christmas.
If his team wants to be the best, he told them, it’s about more than winning the games they’re supposed to win or having flashy final scores.
Victory is great, Schaefer knows, and enjoyable, as well. But what MSU is building goes beyond November and December dominance.
“Go out and play with passion,” he told them. “You spend a lot. You invest a lot in your program. We’re gonna get there.”
If his team plays like it did in the second half, they may already be almost there.