Thursday night, the No. 12 Volunteers, the defending SEC Champions, took the court in Starkville against second-year coach Vic Schafer’s ladies, who were dogs both in mascot and predicted outcome.
Even this early in his time at Mississippi State, though, it’s a position Schaefer and his team are familiar with.
Last year, his Bulldogs beat the 15th-ranked Georgia-variety Dawgs at The Hump, and did so on the backs of his defenders, holding UGA to only 15 points in the first half.
Against the Vols Thursday, some of that same defensive magic seemed to be in play. After nearly six of minutes of game ticking off the clock, UT’s ladies had only managed four points.
To that point, the game was either ugly or beautiful, depending on the preference of the viewer, with MSU and UT tied at four.
Then, the Vols went on a run, starting a cycle State would spend the rest of the night fighting desperately to break.
After a 16-4 run, the UT was up big and threatening to make it a blowout early.
But Kendra Grant hit a jumper for MSU. Savannah Carter weaved in for a layup. Grant nailed another jumper, and so did Martha Alwal. Breanna Richardson, Grant, Jerica James; all continued to find their way to the basket.
By halftime, what looked like an impending beatdown had become a precarious UT lead, the Vols only up 26-23.
“It was a great battle,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick later said.
The second half went much the same, starting with another Grant jumper to begin the second period, making it a one-point game.
Though that’s as close as the Bulldogs ever came.
But for every UT run of five, six, seven or eight unanswered, the Bulldogs hit big shots, made key blocks or came up with contested rebounds to pull back into a one possession game.
“Heck of a basketball game,” Schaefer said, holding back tears after the game as he struggled to keep his voice steady.
On either side of him sat Grant, who had broken her slump and racked up 21 points, Katia May, the point guard who hit nothing but momentum-shifting shots while tallying 14 points and six assists, finally fouling out in the final seconds as she struggled to keep her team in the game, and finally, Martha Alwal on his left, the All-SEC forward who scored 10, fought for nine rebounds and was hardly able to talk for her anger and disappointment.
“I’m really upset,” Alwal said in response to a question she likely barely heard, pausing between each sentence and speaking with slow deliberation. “I think the game was ours. We shouldn’t have lost the game.”
Nine different times in the second half alone, MSU pulled within one possession, finally finishing just short, UT winning 67-63 after the Bulldogs had to resort to fouls, despite being within three with 26 seconds left.
Every time MSU pulled closer, the atmosphere in the crowded Hump – 8th largest in school history – willed the Bulldogs on.
Freshman Dominique Dillingham missed her first 10 shots, but with four minutes left she hit a deep three from somewhere near the CSS television broadcast area, bringing State within three as she let out the most emotional and primal of yells, joined in earnest by her teammates on the court, her bench who had erupted onto their feet and the crowd surrounding her who thought this, finally, may be where their Bulldogs got the lead.
“I’d like to play five more minutes,” Schaefer said afterward with confident regret. “I believe in this group.”
Moments like Dillingham’s dotted the night, making the loss as emotional and difficult as any in Schaefer’s short time as head coach.
Why else should an unranked team somewhere in the ether between rebuilding and winning championships be upset about losing to one of the best teams in the country?
“88-45 a year ago in Knoxville,” Schaefer reminded as he sat at the podium with his three players. “I’d say we’ve come a little ways.”
But they haven’t come as far as they’d like. Dangerously close, but not just yet.
It’s early enough in the process to count the moral victories, but not so early that they don’t hurt.
“Is that enough?” May asked the press room. “To just compete? Losing by four is OK. But to win by four, that would be even better.
“Real close,” May continued. “You taste it. It’s just disappointing how close we were. It’s just a nasty taste.”
In loss, however, Schaefer finds encouragement, particularly in the reactions of his players.
“I’m happy we’re unhappy,” he said with the hint of a smile. “If you’re having to coach somebody’s heart, you got the wrong people. And we’re not having to coach heart.”
The disappointment, Schaefer says, comes as a result of higher expectations. His team is more upset by this four-point loss than they were by the 43-point dismantling a year before.
Before January had even hit its midway point this year, his Bulldogs had already eclipsed last year’s win total for the season. His team is on its way up and the higher up the ladder they get, the more every slip in footing scares.
“I’d say our expectations are a little bit different,” he told the media. “I think we’re growing up a little bit. I’m proud of their competitiveness tonight. They really showed some toughness.”
A toughness, he said, which they’ll need going forward. Cliché or not, nothing gets easier in the SEC. Remember how you feel now, he told his team.
“I think you’re looking at some disappointed Bulldogs. I don’t think there’s anybody that’s satisfied about anything with the outcome,” Schaefer said. “I’m hoping they’re real mad right now. I am.”