To get to the top of college basketball in America, Mississippi State’s women’s basketball team had to traverse some of the less-traveled roads in Europe first.
They’re here in Durham, North Carolina, for, as head coach Vic Schaefer put it, “the greatest event in college athletics, the NCAA Basketball Tournament.” The Bulldogs made it this far for a variety of reasons, including three All-SEC players and the conference Coach of the Year. They finished third in the SEC, set records in attendance and wins and already have one tournament championship under their collective belts this year, the preseason WNIT.
Schaefer has recruited well, coached even better and taken MSU from doormat to deadly in the treacherous SEC in just three seasons. State’s appearance in the NCAAs is a testament to what he’s done and the many names and circumstances that went into all the success. But to hear Schaefer tell it, the most important thing to happen was an overseas trip the team took this summer to play four games and get to know each other.
“Europe started it all,” he said. “The chemistry they had over there immediately was pretty special … We really played beyond our years.”
The trip culminated with a big win over an all-star team full of European professionals, an impressive feat for a college team with so many young players. Being thrown into the fire like that in Europe, and then again in the preseason WNIT when the three seniors were injured, has paid off for the freshmen and sophomores MSU has depended on all season to get where they are now.
At the end of most games, Schaefer pointed out, he’s got two freshmen, two sophomores and just one senior on the court. Yet they’ve won 26 games, many of them on last-second shots.
One of the biggest parts in the MSU basketball machine this season has, of course, been freshman star Victoria Vivians. The Mississippi native got to MSU with high expectations, and may have already exceeded them. In her first year of college, she led the Southeastern Conference in scoring, was named the best collegiate player in the state of Mississippi and became the catalyst for one of the country’s quickest team turnarounds.
“She’s so talented,” senior forward Martha Alwal said of her teammate. “We’ve played several people in the SEC who just couldn’t stop her.”
Despite her in-conference dominance, Vivians was somehow left off the All-SEC first team by both the coaches and the Associated Press. Her coaches and teammates are at a loss for why that happened, but she brushes the snub off as easily as she does most of those who try to defend her.
“I try not to let that affect me,” she said. “I don’t need to be worrying about that. I need to be worried about helping my teammates and trying to win the Final Four.”
Here at Duke, that journey continues as MSU will take the court in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010, one more stop on their tour of re-establishing the MSU name in college basketball.
“I think we’ve gained respect nationally in a very short time,” Schaefer said. “We have the respect of everybody and everybody knows who Victoria Vivians is, and that’s why we’re where we are.”
And where they are today is Cameron Indoor, one of the most storied basketball facilities in the country. For Schaefer and his players to make it to their press conference Thursday, they had to walk by the names of double-digit NBA players, seeing the jerseys hung of players every basketball fan in the country knows.
Of all the great players to play on this court, many great coaches have coached on it, too. And while his career is young, Schaefer is one of them. The last time he played at Cameron Indoor was as an assistant with Texas A&M in the 2011 NCAA Tournament. The result: the Aggies won and went on to claim the National Championship.
Schaefer’s team now has a lot of basketball left, but the potential is there for a group that’s been in the Top 15 the majority of the year and still, according to the head coach, hasn’t even played its best basketball yet.
He’s got a point though. Early in the season, MSU was without its three seniors. Over the course of the year, the freshmen on the team have been learning new things every day. State has been winning games all season, but no coach is ever satisfied, and Schaefer has seen room for improvement after seemingly every game. The Bulldogs have been good, to be sure, and great at times, but their ceiling hasn’t been met just yet.
However, they were almost there the last time they were on the court, a loss against Kentucky in the SEC Tournament almost two weeks ago.
“For about 26 or 27 minutes against UK,” Schaefer admitted, “we were pretty good.”
MSU was leading the Wildcats by 15 in the second half and looked to be on its way to a dominating victory, but it was around that 26th or 27th minute that Vivians went down with a thumb injury, the scoring fell off and the defense disappeared.
“In my line of work, can’t shoot and can’t defend ain’t good,” Schaefer half-joked.
It was a glimpse, though, of what MSU can do. UK has since been slotted as a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, hosting the first two rounds in Lexington. It was a loss, but of the few MSU has, they’ve learned how to get better from them. And certainly, over the course of the year, they’ve learned a few things about winning games.
Now, the postseason begins for MSU, and if they’re going to play their best basketball, this is the time to do it. The pressure of win-or-go-home is old hat for some of the veterans and new for the young pups, but they’ve got to play the games, freshmen and seniors alike. Being nervous isn’t an option.
“I don’t think there’s any room for butterflies,” Vivians said. “We’ve got to come out here and win a game and play our hardest and do our best.”
The regular season was long and the NCAA Tournament promises to be dramatic, but MSU’s next chance to keep proving itself comes tomorrow afternoon in the first round.
“Embrace the grind,” Schaefer said, “because if you don’t, it’ll grind you up.”