Had he known what he was in for, he might have changed his wish, but head coach Vic Schafer said he wanted a defensive game and that’s what he got Friday when Mississippi State beat Tulane 57-47 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Bulldogs held the Green Wave to 13-of-47 shooting on the day, but it was the second half that was particularly impressive for State’s defense. Down 27-22 at the break, Tulane went on a quick run at the start of the second half to gain their first lead. To respond, MSU then went on a 20-2 run to take control of the game and earn a lead they never lost.
It was during the media timeout between those two runs in the second half when the game was won for MSU. After Tulane took its first lead, Schaefer gathered the team around during a timeout and looked his players individually in the eyes, scanning around the group. He told his team they were being out-played, out-hustled and out-toughed.
“He never says thing like that,” senior forward Martha Alwal said after the game.
But on Friday he did, and following his speech, Schaefer drew up a play on the white board and from there, his Bulldogs started their 20-2 run and never looked back.
“I felt like we had gotten out-toughed and out-played,” Schaefer said, “and I thought we really responded at the moment. From there, we really played well and executed well.”
While the game itself wasn’t exactly pretty with its 65-plus missed shots and nearly 40 total turnovers, it was a beautiful outcome for a Bulldog team who hadn’t even been to the NCAA Tournament since 2010, let alone won a game. Both the appearance and the victory speak to what Schaefer has been able to do since arriving in Starkville, and it also fulfilled a promise he made when he first got the job.
The story has been told before of Schaefer telling star forward Martha Alwal that if she stuck with him, he’d get her to the Big Dance before she graduated. When MSU finished third in the SEC this year with a 26-6 overall record, that particular guarantee came through.
What made Friday even more meaningful for Alwal: it was her 22nd birthday.
“It was really special. At first I was sulking because I wanted to go do something for my birthday, but I guess a win as just as good as going out,” Alwal joked. “But it’s awesome to be in the NCAA Tournament and make it to the Round of 32. We’ve been working really hard at it since Coach Schaefer got here.”
As for the game itself, it was the play of another forward, sophomore Breanna Richardson, that made the difference for MSU. When the Bulldogs were struggling to score and seemed to lack energy, Richardson carried the team along. Her scoring run early in the second half helped build the lead MSU kept until the final buzzer.
With 15 points and 12 rebounds, the third double-double of Richardson’s season came at the time her team needed it the most. Of most importance, Schaefer said, were the rebounds Richardson pulled down all night.
“Basically, every time somebody shot, I was going backside to see if I could get the rebound and get something started,” Richardson said.
Next up for the Bulldogs: a match-up with the home team, the Duke Blue Devils, on Sunday at noon eastern time. Duke needed a last-minute shot to win their first round game against Albany, and now it looks as if both teams will enter the game with extra motivation, as well as the Sweet Sixteen on the line.
“It’s good to know you won an NCAA Tournament game when you didn’t play your best,” Schaefer said. “We all came here wanting the opportunity to play Duke … It’s a tremendous challenge, no question.”