William, Vivians Shine As Bulldogs Make First-Ever Final Four

When Mississippi State’s bus shifted into park at Chesapeake Energy Arena, the team managers quickly hopped off first, as is their custom, and the rest of the staff waited while the players began to follow from the back. But then Vic Schaefer stood up and held a staying hand out as he walked halfway down the bus to where his players were preparing to leave.

“Hey, headphones off, y’all,” he said as he got the attention of his full roster. “Everybody hear me? Listen up. Do not get off this bus unless you believe that we are going to beat Baylor and go to the Final Four.”

Here, Schaefer paused and looked over his team, making sure the message was sinking in and giving his players a short second to reflect on their deepest thoughts and see what the truth really was.

“You gotta believe it,” he continued. “You gotta know it. So don’t get off this bus unless you BELIEVE it.”

Schaefer gave them one more meaningful look as he turned and walked off the bus. For a brief moment, no one moved, then in unison, the line of Bulldogs began to file down the aisle and off the bus.

They all believed.

And they believed when few others did. Schaefer struggled to hide his indignation after MSU beat Washington in the Sweet Sixteen, saying his team deserved far more respect than most had been willing to give. When the Bulldogs advanced, despite the predictions of many in the media, they were given even less of a chance to beat the No. 1 seed Baylor in the Elite Eight.

Baylor is too big, MSU was told, too deep and too talented, too motivated and too well-coached to lose this game. Sure, MSU was seemingly told, they had done well to get so far, but Oklahoma City was where this great season was destined to end.

Perhaps that’s why Schaefer checked one last time to make sure his players believed what he was convinced was true. And he wouldn’t have asked them the question if he didn’t know the answer was yes. But the challenge served as a final motivation, an ultimate reminder to stand strong with their convictions and their belief in themselves.

From tipoff through the end of regulation and then again through overtime, the Bulldogs showed their belief. They never lacked for confidence, nor seemed to question what they had collectively decided was true: they were going to beat Baylor and they were going to go to the Final Four. And that’s what they did, taking down the Bears 94-85 in overtime.

MSU’s run through the first three rounds of the NCAA Tournament came on the heels of a new lineup and the backs of young talent, but appropriately, it was the veterans who had established the program as nationally-relevant that stepped up to ensure victory would be theirs. Inserted back into the lineup, junior Victoria Vivians played one of the best games of her almost entirely stellar career, scoring 24 points, grabbing six rebounds, notching six assists and wrangling two steals.

And in a matchup billed as the battle of bigs, it was the smallest player on the court who had the biggest game of them all. Junior point guard Morgan William played the game of her life, dropping 41 points and racking up seven steals in a game that stands for now as the shining moment of her career in Maroon and White. Just one day removed the third anniversary of her father’s sudden death, William played “for an audience of one,” as her head coach explained it after the win.

When Schaefer wrapped her in an embrace immediately following the final buzzer, William buried her face in his shoulder with tears in her eyes. Moments later, she was the first Bulldog up the ladder to begin cutting down the net, a teary-eyed and deeply-rooted smile on her face.

“Our point guard was as good as they get today,” Schaefer said. “She put us on her back. She led us.”

In her career performance, William helped make history for a program that has never won more games, never made it so far, never before reached the Final Four. It’s an achievement that Schaefer knew, once again, would not have come with out faith and belief in what he said and in what he promised. Yes, he asked them to believe they would win this one game tonight. But more than that, it was years ago when he asked the veterans of this team to believe that they could one day reach a game such as this.

The seniors on this team signed on before they’d even seen Schaefer coach a game. Juniors like William and Vivians joined the party when he’d had nothing but a single, losing season. And because they believed then, they saw his promise fulfilled in Oklahoma City.

“They believed in a vision when it wasn’t real easy to believe,” Schaefer said.

Thanks to their faith – and a whole lot of three pointers – Mississippi State is going to the Final Four.

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Bulldogs Make History, Advance To Elite Eight On Impressive Team Performance

I don’t know whether to call it old school because of the style or new school because of the way he used the roster, but this much I am confident saying: that was a classic Vic Schaefer win. Low scoring (for the most part), physical, and back-and-forth. Heated, emotional and in question until the final minutes. It was a team win, a true full-team effort by a group who has faced the best the country has to offer every week from November to now.

The matchup was billed as superstars versus super team, and in this instance, Mississippi State’s depth and determination proved to be the more dominant force as MSU took down Washington and their stars 75-64. The Huskies made their history in the regular season. The Bulldogs are making theirs in the postseason. But forget, for a second, the milestone that this win was. We’ll get to that in a moment. This game deserves to exist in its own vacuum for at least a little while.

MSU went up against the all-time leading scorer in NCAA history, the leading rebounder in college basketball this season and a coach who came from the same Gary Blair coaching tree as Schaefer. And won. And they didn’t win on a lucky buzzer-beater, or a questionable call by a referee, or because one of UW’s best players got hurt or any odd happenstance that could be considered an excuse. There were no asterisks. There were no mitigating circumstances. There was nothing but State going out and being the best team on the court for 40-straight minutes of game play.

“I’m awfully proud of my kids tonight,” Schaefer said. “I was so proud of what they were able to take in three days from a defensive standpoint.”

It was game that required strong performances from MSU’s best players in their toughest matchups. Teaira McCowan, going against one of the best forwards college basketball has to offer, dropped 26 points and wrangled in 12 rebounds, notching a double-double of her own against the player with most double-doubles in the country this season. That’s not even mentioning McCowan’s six blocks and two assists. Victoria Vivians, MSU’s All-SEC leading scorer, took on the challenge of facing the NCAA’s leading scorer, producing both offensively and defensively as she came off the bench to score 13 points, notch four rebounds and accrue two assists.

Throughout the lineup, Bulldogs found ways to make plays and impact the game. Players like Morgan William, whose scoring output was minimal, found open teammate after open teammate as the game advanced, setting them up for success and racking up assists along the way. Blair Schaefer hit shots, Ketara Chapel pulled in rebounds, Dominique Dillingham defended the perimeter.

“It was just a team effort,” Dillingham said.

Remove any one person from the game, and MSU may not have won. They didn’t depend on one player; they depended on all the players. And by doing so, they proved themselves worthy of making history.

It’s been said by him, written by me, and remarked upon by all who follow the team. Schaefer can’t seem to go a day lately without setting some kind of record, be it a team, individual or even fan achievement. I’d be amazed if Schaefer could remember even a third of the records he’s responsible for if not given a heads up the question was coming. I certainly couldn’t and it’s my job to follow those things

But this one is different. This one is something he won’t forget, something all MSU fans can hold onto. By winning in Oklahoma City, the Bulldogs advanced to the Elite Eight for the first time in program history. In all the years that women’s basketball has been played at Mississippi State, never has any team achieved as much as this bunch. No one has won more games. When they started hugging and celebrating on the court as the final seconds ticked off the clock, they did so knowing that none had made it farther, that in only five years under Schaefer, they were in their third NCAA Tournament and moving on to a round that had never before included Mississippi State.

“I have so much pride in these girls because I know how hard they work,” Schaefer said. “I’m a little disappointed in the country right now that we’re not getting the respect we deserve … And you know what, that’s fine. We’ll fly under the radar all the way if we have to.”

On Sunday, they get the chance to make history again with the Final Four on the line.

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Bulldogs, Huskies Present Contrasting Styles In Sweet 16 Matchup

For nearly 25 years, Gary Blair has, likely unbeknownst to himself, helped raise the next generation of great college women’s basketball coaches. Now the head coach at Texas A&M, Blair has seen two of his former assistants and pupils at Arkansas blossom and grow into their own successful careers. Today, those two meet when Mississippi State plays the University of Washington in the Sweet Sixteen.

However, despite their time under the same man, Vic Schaefer and Mike Neighbors couldn’t present two more contrasting styles of basketball, and tonight’s game will be quite the clash in approaches for the men who have remained friends throughout their careers.

On the side of Neighbors and the Huskies, the headlines read big and impressive. Senior guard Kelsey Plum isn’t just her team’s leading scorer, isn’t just best in the Pac-12, and in fact she isn’t even No. 1 for just this entire year. Plum is the all-time leading scorer in NCAA history, having passed Jackie Stiles late this season. Plum is averaging 31.7 points per game this year, including a career-high 57 points against Utah, and as most would guess, the UW offense runs through her.

Schaefer, a native of Houston, Texas, has easily been able to find a comparison in his hometown Houston Rockets, who have a style of play built around the talents of NBA All-Star James Harden.

“They run a lot of stuff that the Rockets run,” Schaefer said. “Everything runs off of Kelsey.”

And, oddly enough, Schaefer actually coached against former record holder Stiles three times while he was an assistant at Arkansas. He knows the difficulty of facing such a game-changing scorer. MSU senior guard Dominique Dillingham, State’s best defender, summed up the challenge pretty easily.

“She’s really versatile,” Dillingham said of Plum. “She can spot up shoot. She can go off dribble. She can go to the rim. And she loves to get the ball to her teammates.”

Of course, as Schaefer has pointed out, Plum isn’t all the Huskies have, and in fact, while Plum leads the nation in scoring, it’s her teammate Chantel Osahor who leads the country in rebounding, averaging 15.3 per game. She even had one outing where she grabbed 30 boards, and she’s tops in the country with 29 double-doubles this year.

“The whole group is good,” Schaefer said. “The whole team is good. I think they’re a tremendous basketball team. Their supporting cast, they know their roles and they execute it very well.”

It’s because of the talent around her that UW is in the Sweet Sixteen, but Plum is very much the focal point of the offense, whether she’s scoring, assisting or just distracting.

Meanwhile, MSU has reached this portion of the postseason with a completely different style, both on offense and defense. The Bulldogs have developed a team approach, not in the sense that they play as a good team – though that’s true, too – but that, whatever the situation, someone on the team is going to come through. The trouble for opposing coaches is that you never really know who it’s going to be.

Sure, junior guard Victoria Vivians leads the team in scoring at 16.1 points per game, but next on the list behind there are a full six players who’s scoring averages fall between 7-10 points per game. And here’s the kicker: none of those six are Blair Schaefer, the guard who torched Troy and DePaul in the first and second rounds last weekend, being inserted into the starting lineup and scoring nearly 40 points combined in those two games, despite only averaging about five points per game coming in.

The frustration was evident for Troy head coach Chanda Rigby who watched the younger Schaefer set a career-high against her Trojans, getting a surprise start and dropping 21 points in the first round last Friday. Rigby’s game plan was useless almost immediately, as Schaefer took the court and scored MSU’s first 11 points in a row while MSU’s leading scorer cheered her on from the bench.

“We were going to deny the ball to [Vivians] and we really worked on that a lot this week,” she said. “If we knew Blair was going to come out and hit her first three or four shots, we would have stayed in on her, but we had no way of knowing that. That wasn’t in any scouting report so we had no idea that was going to happen.’

The same happened to DePaul, who was prepared on Sunday to face All-SEC point guard Morgan William and attempt to frustrate MSU’s offense by disrupting her flow. Instead, William ended up spending much of the second half on the bench as Jazzmun Holmes came out of seemingly nowhere to score 13 points and rack up six assists as she led the Bulldog attack.

“It’s hard to get teams who are really prepared for us because we’re so versatile,” Blair Schaefer said. “It’s difficult for them because they don’t know who’s going to go off on our team … They don’t know who’s gonna shoot, who’s gonna drive. We have such a versatile group.”

When they play tonight, MSU will know exactly who to be concerned with, they just have to hope they’ve figured out enough in three days to manage it. Washington will have to keep their head on a swivel as they watch to see which of MSU’s four aircraft carriers in the post and which of their more than half a dozen rotating guards are making plays each time up the court, relying on their own known stars and role players to lead the way.

For Neighbors and Schaefer to have come this far and to present such different styles despite their old ties may seem odd, but Schaefer knows that’s just part of coaching.

“As coaches,” he said, “that’s our job – to put our kids in the best spot possible where they can be successful.”

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Bulldogs Advance To Sweet Sixteen Through Dominant Win Over DePaul

Vic Schaefer likes to refer to Teaira McCowan as an aircraft carrier on occasion, and considering the sophomore forward is 6’7” with an even longer wingspan, the comparison makes some sense. On Sunday, Schaefer had en entire fleet of ships, a set of four forwards defending their basket like carriers protect their homeland and dominating the paint with the same might and precision of a military offensive.

Mississippi State beat a talented DePaul team in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in Starkville by a score of 92-71, and they did so on the backs of their forwards. Schaefer’s quartet of Breanna Richardson, Chinwe Okorie, Ketara Chapel and McCowan paved the way early, dominating the paint and controlling the boards against a squad of Blue Demons that just didn’t have the size to compete. MSU ultimately out-rebounded DePaul 48-26 and 52 of the Bulldogs’ 92 points came in the paint, the four aircraft carriers accounting for nearly 40 of them.

“It was easy for us to go inside,” point guard Jazzmun Holmes said after her 14-point and six-assist performance, “and we could finish.”

“They’ve got a lot of weapons,” DePaul coach Doug Bruno added, having previously admitted, “we were not able to defensively stop Mississippi State.”

With MSU commanding things around the basket early, the DePaul defense was forced to crowd the lane, opening things up for State’s shooters to have a field day of jumpers and threes. The Bulldogs shot 75 percent from three in the second half and hit nearly 60 percent of all field goals in the final two quarters. Junior guard Blair Schaefer emerged as one of the primary benefactors, dropping 18 points over the course of the game, and that coming after a 21-point career day in round one on Friday.

“We talked at halftime that we needed to instill our will out there,” she said after the game, reflecting on what made MSU so successful in the second half. “When they put so much emphasis on our post players, it just opens up so many things for us on the perimeter.”

The back-to-back outings for the younger Schaefer are indicative of the performances of MSU’s entire team in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs had a rough end to the regular season and SEC Tournament, causing some to ask their coach just this week if perhaps his team had peaked too early in the season. By dropping 112 points in the first round and beating a ranked team by over 20 in the second round, Schaefer and his players answered the question with an emphatic no.

“I talked to my kids today in pre-game about who we are and what we’re known for,” Schaefer said. “I talked about toughness and competitive spirit.”

Not only are they back to form, but with a new lineup and one of the deepest benches in the country, they might be even better than they were at their best midseason. State is no longer ranked No. 2 in the country like it was for so much of the regular season, but with the postseason well underway, it’s the performances that matter, not the respect, and MSU is playing like a team who is scared of no one and prepared for anybody.

Like a game of Risk, MSU’s victories won them more ground in the postseason, a national power still on the aggressive with the NCAA Tournament field cut in half. On the backs of their fleet of aircraft carriers, the Bulldogs are only looking stronger as they go.

“Hopefully we’re getting hot at the right time of year,” Schaefer said. “That’s what this tournament is all about.”

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Schaefer, Bulldogs Make Statement In Dominant NCAA Tourney Win

At a certain point over the last few years, Vic Schaefer probably got used to making history. Surely, each achievement was nice in the moment, but as week-after-week and game-after-game involved some kind of new school record or high water mark, the novelty had to have worn off at least a little.

In any other circumstance, and for many other programs, today would have been a big deal for the record it included, but the piece of history made today in Starkville is borderline inconsequential in comparison with the rest of the year. The fact that this 30th win of the season for Mississippi State was a school record means little if more wins don’t follow it.

Today, much more so than history, a statement was made. After a hard end to the regular season, after several weeks of struggling offensively, the Bulldogs emphatically declared on Friday afternoon in Humphrey Coliseum that they are back. In front of thousands at The Hump, State returned to form, playing like the team those fans saw in January that look destined for the Final Four and capable of beating anyone in the country.

They were rebounding, they were stealing, they were scoring and defending. They hit shots, blocked shots and called their shots. They stole buzzer beaters, accepted free throws, clogged the lane and caught absolute fire on the perimeter.

MSU completely dominated Troy, breaking into triple digits in an NCAA Tournament game as they won 110-69. History be darned, with the Bulldogs playing at their best, the Trojans just didn’t have the horses to keep up.

Friday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament was a return to form for MSU, and it appeared in some respects to possibly even be version 2.0 of these Bulldogs with a massive shakeup to the starting lineup and impressive performances from the starters and bench players alike.

Blair Schaefer got her second start of the year and rewarded her coaches with a career-high 21 points, scoring all of State’s first 11 points to start the game. Roshunda Johnson was inserted into the starting lineup and she, too, made the call look equally as smart, dropping 13 points in 17 minutes.

It was, perhaps, the quietest double-digit scoring game of Victoria Vivians’s career, but Schaefer’s decision to take her out of the starting lineup for the first time all season paid dividends. Having been in a slump to finish the season, the All-SEC Vivians shot 5-of-11, scored 13 points and brought in six rebounds despite only playing for 16 minutes.

All told, MSU had five players in double-digits, but their defense was even more impressive. Bulldogs out-rebounded Trojans 61-48, racking up seven blocks and 11 steals along the way, forcing 21 turnovers and holding Troy to 31.3 percent shooting.

This was the kind of game that leads the more clichéd writers to lead off a story with the definition of dominate (“Exercise control over,” if you were curious). Behind Schaefer’s scheming and his players’ production, the Bulldogs absolutely dominated the Trojans in the manner of a prize fighter who deflects every shot the opponent takes and lands every punch they throw.

The unrelenting attack, the smothering performance, seemed to declare that Mississippi State is ready for any foe this tournament may provide. The field is sliced in half with each round, and the Bulldogs don’t plan to be cut any time soon.

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Bryant Rediscovering Passion For Football Under Guidance From English

Even the things that are the most fun, that bring the most joy, can turn sour when they become work. Not only are sports not an exception, they’re practically the rule, and college football serves as a prime example. The amount of time required and the intensity of both the mental and physical effort required, along with the pressures, expectations and competitions, are tough enough to handle when someone is enjoying it.

Ron English, Mississippi State safeties coach, at practice

But when love for the game fades, the activities become requirements and the practice becomes work. Even if the effort is the same, performance is sure to slip, only making things even less enjoyable and fueling a maddening circle of disappointment and frustration.

Mississippi State’s new safeties coach Ron English, a former head coach who has been in the game long enough to coach over 50 players who eventually made it to the NFL, recognized the symptoms quickly when he arrived in Starkville. Junior safety Brandon Bryant, who picked the No. 1 for his jersey to signify he’s the best player on the field, was clearly one of the unhappiest players on the field, too.

“He asked me,” Bryant recalled, “do I love football? And I told him how I really felt about it … He told me during the offseason he knows I work hard and do what I’m supposed to do, but he said, it just doesn’t look like you enjoy yourself.”

How he really felt is a complex and many-layered subject, but the short version of those feelings is that they were far from positive. On the field last year, Bryant’s production slipped, a fact which didn’t escape the notice of fans watching the games, as Bryant unfortunately discovered on social media week-after-week.

But behind the scenes, pressures and expectations were getting to Bryant, as well. Certainly, the stories being written about him following up on his impressive freshman season raised expectations, and to be fair, switching to the No. 1 jersey didn’t do anything to dissuade reporters from writing those stories. Even more pressure was coming from those whispering in his ear about the NFL, some telling him that as a draft-eligible sophomore he would be ready for the pros after this season.

All of these things were swirling around Bryant mere months after losing his father who was killed in a motorcycle accident in December of 2015, the end of Bryant’s freshman season. To compound the issues, Bryant’s position coach Tony Hughes left in that same December to become the head coach at Jackson State.

Bryant, the fastest player on MSU’s team, one of the most gifted athletes in the SEC and a presumptive rising star in college football, found himself unhappy and often alone in a football world that had once been his source of joy and meaning.

“I wasn’t enjoying it,” Bryant said. “Of course I’m going to work hard, because I’m a competitive person, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to love the game you play.”

After a year of frustration, Bryant is slowly working his way back to the football player he used to be – one that has fun when he plays. Changes on the field are coming as a result of changes away from the game, thanks largely in part to the unexpected arrival of English, a coach able to serve as a role model and even father figure to Bryant and his teammates.

After their first conversation, Bryant and English started talking nearly every day, sometimes about football, but more often about the rest of Bryant’s world.

“With him, I’m really trying to get him to enjoy playing football,” English said. “When I got here, I felt like it was a burden and everything I heard was there had been high expectations, and then obviously the death of a parent is heavy. Just this week I met with him and didn’t even want to talk about football. I said, how about we talk about life and how you’re dealing with these issues. Quite frankly, until he deals with that and enjoys playing football, he’s not going to be the player he can be.”

Bryant says now he tries to spend as much time around his new coach as he can, picking up on the way he lives his life, the way he approaches the game and the way he maintains his happiness. The young safety says he wants to be like his new coach, enjoying every day and every thing he does.

To be sure, there’s no magical switch Bryant can flip to change his outlook immediately. It’s a process, clichéd or not. Contentment and satisfaction don’t come just by smiling more and pretending to be happy. But as spring practices have begun, Bryant is beginning to re-discover the joy he used to get from playing football.

“If you look at him the past couple of days,” English said, “he’s had a smile on his face. He picks a couple of balls off and he celebrates. I thought that was huge. I asked him coming up here, how did you do today and did you have fun? He said he did, and hopefully we can keep him having fun.”

Part of the change for Bryant has involved tuning out the noise around him away from the field, choosing to set his own goals for himself. The only expectations he worries about meeting are his own. Certainly, the journey is far from over, but with English helping to guide him, Bryant’s outlook is more positive than it’s been a long time.

“I just have been around so many guys that I know it’s hard to be good when you don’t enjoy playing or if you are distracted by whatever reason it is,” English said. “I told him this, college is going to be over soon and it is the best time of your life. I’m not saying you’re not going to have other great times in your life, but there’s nothing like college. So I told him I want him to enjoy it and enjoy the last two years he has left here, and I am going to try to help you do that.”

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Bulldogs Dominate A&M, Advance To SEC Tourney Championship Re-match

Some things, despite the lengths many go to in an effort to describe them, can be explained pretty easily. The redwoods in California are big. A sunset after the rain has cleared is colorful. Popcorn at the movies is salty. Nuance is nice, and descriptors are helpful, but often it’s easier just to call things what they are.

c6h2fptuoaeagvu-jpg-largeMississippi State’s performance against Texas A&M was just dominant. No frills, no froof, no Disney move storylines – just a completely dominant performance. You could go with the student-becomes-the-teacher angle as MSU coach Vic Schaefer took down his longtime boss in A&M coach Gary Blair, but even a narrative as seemingly innocent as that would take away from what the game actually was to Schaefer’s Bulldogs.

Saturday night in the SEC Tournament semi-finals was a response. It was a statement. It was a heavyweight boxer shaking off the cobwebs of what looked like a knockout blow and rising up to show that not only are they still standing, but they’re still punching. And this was a punch that landed, as State took down the Aggies 66-50, leading by 20-plus for all but a couple minutes of the second half and advancing to the SEC Tournament Championship against South Carolina on Sunday night.

“I thought we played extremely well tonight,” Schaefer said afterward. “I was proud of our kids for how they came out and played. I thought we came out with a lot of intensity.”

screen-shot-2017-03-04-at-9-06-01-pmPerhaps what was so impressive about the performance for MSU was that it didn’t come on the back of one player having a career night, or a couple of them going off unexpectedly. It was a full team performance, a domination from every spot on the roster. Even at halftime it was clear, when nine Bulldogs had entered the game and all nine had scored. State’s leaders in points, rebounds, blocks and assists were all different people.

Whatever lethargy had been plaguing MSU appears eradicated. Whatever demon was troubling State’s soul when the regular season concluded appears to have been exorcised by means of giving the Aggies a workout of their own in Greenville, South Carolina.

“It was frustrating to know people were playing with more heart than us,” senior Dominique Dillingham said of the recent struggles, affirming she believes her team got its heart back.

Perhaps the rest of the SEC had a quick moment to attempt to slay the briefly sleeping giant that is MSU basketball, but the Bulldogs stated emphatically on Saturday night, they ain’t dead yet. No, in fact, they’re wide awake and their muscles have been flexed.

Their performance seemed to say that those who got their shots in were lucky to have done so when they did, and those who must face MSU going forward will encounter a team intent on asserting its dominance.

“We stubbed our toe,” Schaefer said, “against two really good teams. Okay. They bounced back, and that’s what I expected them to do.

“For our kids,” he continued, “there’s a sense of pride. I think our kids see the investment that is in our program in a number of ways. When you’ve got all those fans that have traveled this far, and spent all that money to be here, you don’t want to let them down.”

Next up for the Bulldogs: a chance at redemption and revenge against the Gamecocks of South Carolina with the SEC Tournament Championship on the line.

“We want to beat them,” junior point guard Morgan William said. “We’ve just got to keep playing like we’ve been playing.”

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Chapel’s Second Half Heroics Power Bulldogs To SEC Tourney Semis

It helps a bit that Vic Schaefer and Gene Hackman look at least a little similar – they could certainly pass for cousins, if not necessarily brothers – as it would be easy to imagine that Schaefer, head coach of Mississippi State’s No. 6 women’s basketball team, would have given a halftime interview along the lines of the football coach Hackman played in the film The Replacements.

“Coach,” Hackman’s character, Jimmy McGinty, was asked by a reporter as he went into the locker room, “what’s it going to take to win this game?”

“Heart,” he replied, tapping his chest. “Miles and miles of heart.”

screen-shot-2017-03-03-at-7-37-01-pmHeart, it seemed, was what MSU was lacking in many moments of the first half of its SEC Tournament game against LSU. The shots were the obvious thing the Bulldogs were missing, particularly in a woeful nine-point second quarter, but the drive to take over the game, to dominate an opponent MSU had demonstrated before it was better than, was falling short, as well.

The second half didn’t start out much better than the first, State continuing to struggle, but late in the third quarter, a hero emerged. Naturally, it was a senior who stepped up as fourth-year forward Ketara Chapel hit three buckets in four possessions, giving the Bulldogs a spark of life just as the Tigers were threatening to not just take the lead, but to perhaps run away with it if MSU didn’t start hitting shots.

“I felt like our momentum started coming and our press picked up a lot,” Chapel said when asked about the third quarter run.

As the second half wound on, MSU’s shooting picked up, and as it did so, Chapel’s consistency never wavered, as she ended up scoring 10 points by the end of the game, not missing a single shot. And it wasn’t just that Chapel was hitting shots, but that was she collecting important rebounds, setting effective picks, making smart passes and generally playing good all-around basketball. She wasn’t the highest scorer in the game, nor she did she lead in a single other category.

Unless, of course, you count heart. And Schaefer, as those who follow him know very well, always does.

“Ketara, what can you say about her?” Schaefer asked reporters in his post-game press conference. “She went down in practice with a back issue yesterday. I didn’t even know she was gonna play today.”

screen-shot-2017-02-13-at-6-13-40-pmChapel was one of several over the course of the night who stepped up to impact the game, joining fellow senior forward Breanna Richardson, whose 10-point first quarter was the highlight of the opening period, just as it was also the reason MSU was able to build any kind of an early lead. Junior point guard Morgan William helped calm her team and set the pace, scoring a game-high 21 points to help MSU ultimately take home a 78-61 victory in a game that was much closer until the final moments.

“I thought our kids showed some toughness tonight and some resilience,” Schaefer said.

Though he expressed that perhaps none showed more than the quiet Chapel, who didn’t even play for the entire first half, only entering the game in the third quarter when Schaefer thought Richardson was getting tired.

“She couldn’t walk hardly yesterday when she got tangled up in practice,” Schaefer said. “I didn’t even think about putting her in until Bre got winded in the third quarter.”

Once Chapel got in, good things followed. However, while Schaefer was surprised Chapel was able to play, he wasn’t at all taken back by her performance once she began playing. Just recently, he and Chapel had spent 30 minutes in the gym after practice, just the two of them, perfecting her shot. He knew she would be ready when the time came.

“I can see it in her eyes,” Schaefer said. “She’s confident. She’s battle tested. She wants to be in the moment.”

And when the moment came, when heart was needed, Chapel delivered. There is, perhaps, one more McGinty quote Schaefer could have easily made his own as he praised Chapel after MSU’s win.

Winners always want the ball when the game is on the line.

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Brent Rooker, Human Superlative, Earns Player Of The Week Honors, Plus Other Stuff Too

Brent Rooker is many things. Rather, he’s one thing – a human of the young male variety – made up of millions upon millions of things – innumerable amounts of cells working in frenzied unison to create that one human male. He can probably tell you all about that, too, smart guy that he is. He could even tell you how likely it is that cellular life like we know it on Earth exists elsewhere in the universe. But that’s neither here nor there. Well, maybe it’s there, in the The Truth Is Out There sense, but at the very least, it’s not here.

Brent Rooker hitting a home run, probably

Brent Rooker hitting a home run, probably

What’s here, in Starkville, Mississippi, part of Planet Earth in the Milky Way Galaxy, is baseball. Good, old-fashioned American baseball. Hot dogs and cracker jacks, ball caps and big hits – the good stuff. And in that regard, Rooker is both very talented and very experienced. And coming back to our main point, when it comes to baseball, Rooker is many things.

For one, he’s a junior. He’s an outfielder. Sometimes he’s a designated hitter, sometimes he just a regular hitter. Either way, he’s generally a very good hitter. Today, he’s the National Player of the Week and also the SEC Player of the Week, though the fact of the former seems to make the need for the latter a bit redundant.

Over the weekend, as he took to Dudy Noble Field four times in three days, he wasn’t just a baseball player. He was also a son, a grandson and even a boyfriend. He remains all three of those things now, of course, but they were particularly obvious on Saturday afternoon.

It’s a rare thing for fans to be as close to players on the field as they are at Mississippi State, just a fence measuring a few inches thick separating crowds of people and grills with their food and coolers and cowbells from the action on the grass of the outfield. That’s why it was nice for a trio of those maroon-and-white-clad fans to find a spot in the right field, first rig back from the fence in The Lounge, where they could sit to watch their grandson, their son, their boyfriend.

At some moments no more than 20 feet away, Rooker’s mom, granddad (a great college athlete himself in his time) and long-time girlfriend all sat on the second level of a welcoming rig as they watched the collection of cells they love so much put on an absolute show.

Cheers, guys

Cheers, guys

Over the course of the weekend, Rooker gave them and all others in the stadium plenty to cheer for as he racked up 14 RBI and three home runs in his four games, batting .474 with an on-base percentage of .583 and an astounding slugging percentage of 1.158. Rooker’s fan club was there all weekend, particularly pleased by his marathon first two games in which he batted 8-for-8, hit three home runs and accrued all 14 of his runs batted in.

Much of it, apparently, just because of a minimal tweak he tried out some time Friday afternoon before that first game.

“I made a small adjustment before the game in batting practice,” he said. “I thought that paid off well. I was just able to get the head out a little bit more, catch a few balls out front, which felt pretty good.”

“Few” might be an understatement (it’s definitely an understatement), but to circle back to our central theme here – Brent Rooker is many things, and being a hitter is not his only trick. He can run, too.

Perhaps first-year head coach Andy Cannizaro was surprised to discover the secret. After all, Rooker’s career before this season included a grand total of only two stolen bases on three attempts. If the big-bodied outfielder had the ability previously, it hadn’t yet been displayed. But with Cannizaro has come an aggressive approach on the basepaths, and it’s shining a light on one of Rooker’s apparently very many talents.

NASA discovered seven new planets this week, spread the word

NASA discovered seven new planets this week, spread the word

Over the course of the weekend, Rooker successfully stole five bases, giving him a perfect 1.000 average not just for the weekend, but for the entire season, as he is now 8-for-8 in stolen base attempts in 2017.

“Yeah, I mean, everybody knows I can hit the ball far sometimes, but people don’t know I’m actually kinda fast and I can actually steal some bases,” he said. “I can run a little bit. I’m able to put that to use under [Cannizaro] with our aggression on the basepaths.”

After two weekends, Rooker leads the SEC in RBI (17), total bases (27) and stolen bases (eight), while ranking second in doubles (five). Call him the Brent Rooker Human Body For Cells Who Want To Hit Good And Do Other Things Good, Too. And sure, the season is long, but so is the list of areas in which the star baseball player excels.

Brent Rooker is many things, but for the moment, Player of the Week will suffice as explanation enough.

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Linton Represents MSU At NFL Combine For 25th Year

A familiar face is a nice thing when you’re away from home. It becomes a great thing when you’re not just away from home, but when you’re about to go through the biggest job interview of your life. On national television.

linton-fum3tt7jjgx2yb9-3m7srcl6ath5b3xrDr. Rusty Linton is the head orthopedic surgeon for Mississippi State’s football team, and through his connections in the world of football, he’s also represented various professional teams at the NFL Combine every year for over two decades. Last year, Linton got a text message during the Combine from an MSU player he’d worked with extensively over the last several years.

A quarterback not receiving much hype or hoopla in the time leading up to the NFL Draft, former Bulldog Dak Prescott was in Indianapolis and had begun his time at the Combine. Not long into the process, he hit an unexpected snag.

“Somebody wanted an MRI on something on Dak,” Linton explained. “It was something that, maybe three years ago, he’d had one little problem.”

“Doc,” Linton remembered Prescott asking, “why are they doing this? Nothing’s wrong.”

“I said, Dak, people are getting ready to spend a lot of money on you. Just go with the flow. If somebody wants to test you, just let them get it. A lot of times they want tests because they’re really interested in you and they just want to make sure nothing else went wrong. Different teams look at different things. Don’t let it worry you.”

Those who have continued to breathe oxygen in the year since are aware of how things turned out for Prescott. The young quarterback has done plenty well for himself, but in those moments being shuffled from room to room getting examined by a new stranger every hour, it was certainly nice to have that familiar face.

“I always love to see the Mississippi State guys come through,” Linton said.

And in the 25 years he’s been going to the Combine, following 32 such years on the sideline at MSU, Linton has seen quite a few people come through. Even outside the Bulldog family, he once had a streak in the ‘90s where he saw eight-straight Heisman Trophy winners come through.

Linton first started working the Combine in 1990 as a result of a connection he’d made early in his career. Linton did his sports medicine fellowship in Florida, where the man he worked for was the University of Florida’s team doctor and was also the assistant team doctor for the Miami Dolphins. Every NFL team sends a full group of doctors to the Combine, and in the spring of 1990, the Dolphins needed an extra doctor to complete their staff. Linton was invited, and he happily took on the opportunity.

“I thought that would be my one and only time to go,” Linton said.

Of course, he was far from correct on that assumption. While at the Combine, Linton and Miami’s head doctor Dan Kanell hit it off, and for the next five years that Kanell was in charge in Miami, Linton came as part of the team. A couple years after that run ended, the Pittsburgh Steelers needed an extra doctor, and much of the group had worked in the same examining room as Linton, so they asked him to join their crew. The next year, the Chicago Bears needed an extra doctor, and Linton went with them for several seasons. This time around, he’s going with the Steelers again.

He enjoys the experience, to be sure, but one of the primary benefits from all of it is the boost it gives him back home.

“One of the main things for me is, it has helped my medical education so much,” he said, “because you have some of the best and brightest doctors that are with these teams, and you get to spend a week with them and examine players with them. Plus, you make great connections. So, if a Mississippi State player has something that’s not that common, I’ve got tons of people to call up and somebody will know. It’s almost like the doctors are a big fraternity. It’s a brotherhood that you can call on and ask people.”

In fact, over his years at the Combine, Linton has even learned to read MRI readouts, a skill that has been particularly beneficial for his work at MSU.

“Sometimes, we get an MRI on a Mississippi State kid on Friday afternoon at 5 o’clock,” he explained. “Well, the radiologist isn’t going to see it until Monday morning, and Coach Mullen needs to know the answer before then. It’s made me a much better doctor for Mississippi State being able to go to the Combine.”

This year will be Linton’s 25th NFL Combine, and this fall, he will begin his 28th professional season at Mississippi State. It’s far from over just yet, but it’s been quite a ride so far.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” he said. “I still enjoy what I do. It’s fun helping kids reach their dreams. Sometimes there are bumps in the road, and sometimes we can be the ones that help them get back on the field and be able to play to their best. That’s always a fulfilling feeling to me.”

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