Borrowing a cliché: for Mississippi State to get something it’s never had, it’s going to have to do something it’s never done.
MSU’s women’s basketball team has the task of slaying a college basketball giant tomorrow when it plays Duke with the Sweet Sixteen on the line and State head coach Vic Schaefer said what the Bulldogs need in order to win is something they haven’t yet had this year: a complete game.
“We’ve said it a lot after wins. We didn’t play very well and were still good enough to win,” Schaefer said. “I think it’s a good sign … But I’m still waiting for us to get it all together and click for 40 minutes.”
The Bulldogs have shown flashes, to be sure, beating ranked opponents and winning games even when they had an off night. The fact that MSU has done as well as it has, recording a record number of wins both overall and in the conference, despite not yet reaching their ceiling, is as impressive as anything.
“We all believe, if we can ever get it all together, that night will be special,” Schaefer said. “To beat Duke tomorrow, we’re probably gonna have to have that day.”
The No. 16 team in the country, the host school Blue Devils are big, long and physical all over the court. They’re deep, talented, experienced and, like MSU, hungry to advance.
While both teams won their first round games on Friday, neither felt it played great basketball for the entirety of their games. Each squad considered itself lucky to have advanced after less than stellar performances.
Following Friday’s win over Tulane, Schaefer conceded that a team of players participating in their first NCAA Tournament game may have been a little nervous to start.
“I knew we were gonna have some nerves yesterday,” he said. “At the end of the day, they’re kids. They’re happy go lucky. But at the same time, we’ve talked about flipping the switch. When you walk out of the locker room, you’ve gotta leave the little girl in there because you’re about to play some pretty big women.”
The plan for State will be to find a way to get Duke off its game on both sides of the ball and force them into backup plans. For the Bulldogs, the defensive game plan will involve tough perimeter defense and forcing contested shots.
“They want to play pretty ball,” sophomore guard Dominique Dillingham said. “We want them to have to run their offense through the post so we can muck them up.”
Duke head coach Joanne McCallie knows the attack is coming and concedes it can be a challenge to stop it.
“[Schaefer] is a defensive mastermind and he knows that we don’t have any point guards,” she said. “He’s one of the best defensive coaches in the country. Mississippi State is trending in a beautiful way. They’ve got great players and you’ve just got to play the game. We’ve just got to figure some things out.”
Offensively, MSU knows it has to get the ball in the post more consistently to senior forward Martha Alwal, who McCallie referred to as a “super” player who disrupts the size advantage her team usually has. Alwal only had four points and five rebounds in 22 minutes of play against Tulane. To advance to the next round, Schaefer said, that can’t happen again.
“We’re not gonna win tomorrow if she doesn’t play well,” he told reporters Saturday.
The good news for MSU though is they feel they’ve already got their bad game out of the way for the postseason, they’ve already done more than anyone outside of the locker room expected them to this year and they’re the road team in a hostile environment at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Basically, they’re playing with house money. The pressure is on Duke and the Bulldogs can just play their game.
“I don’t think we’ve got to do anything to validate our season. They’ve performed beyond anyone’s expectations,” Schaefer said. “Our players have had a special year. It’ll take our best effort probably of the year to win here tomorrow.”
While that effort hasn’t happened yet, Schaefer is hopeful Sunday can be the day.