Taking down Chattanooga 60-50 on Friday, the Bulldogs won the first round of the NCAA Tournament in classic Mississippi State fashion under Vic Schaefer. They played stout defense, hit timely shots and frustrated their opponent on both ends.
“This is who we are,” Schaefer said afterward.
At the center of it, scoring over 30 percent of her team’s points, was the sophomore star Victoria Vivians, dropping 19 on the Mocs and helping her team advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, a Sunday matchup against Michigan State.
In the final minute of the game, on the last of her many breakaways after long defensive rebounds, a smile cracked open on Vivians’ face as she crossed midcourt. Two Chattanooga defenders had stepped in her path, fearful after what they had seen her do so many times already that game, continually staving off comeback attempts with her frequent baskets. In that moment, as Vivians saw the fear and respect in their faces, she knew that not only had she won, but her team had won.
The 19 points she had, the difference in the game, came as a result of that team, too. All those breakaways?
“That comes off our defense,” Schaefer said.
And it goes the other way, too, with Vivians’ success inspiring her teammates along the way.
Chattanooga head coach Jim Foster knew that coming in, though. After all, Vivians was just this week named first-team All-SEC, such a short time after winning the Gillom Trophy given to the best player in the state of Mississippi. Even more impressive than her season-long performance, however, has been the hot streak Vivians is on since the postseason began. When it’s mattered the most, when the opponents have been the toughest, Vivians has been at her best.
In her last three games – the SEC Tournament semi-finals against Tennessee, SEC finals against South Carolina and NCAA Tournament first round today – Vivians has racked up 75 points and 24 rebounds. She’s averaging 25 and 8 in what should be the hardest games of a long season. And she’s managing it with the other teams doing everything they can to stop her.
“We knew that she was going to try to do everything she could to put the team on her back,” UTC senior Alicia Payne said, “and she did a good job doing that.”
“She’s talented,” Mocs head coach Jim Foster confirmed succintly.
And when they say Vivians does everything, they don’t just mean she makes everything. She’s affecting the game all over the court.
“Tori took a charge,” junior forward Chinwe Okorie said with a laugh after the game. “Tori’s not really our charge-taker, but she knew she had to sacrifice in that moment, and she did. She did it for out team … When you see Tori do that, you’re like, ‘Oh, ok, there are things I have to do.’”
Of course, it is those baskets that mean so much. Seemingly every time UTC was coming back and making it close, Vivians would fly down the court for a breakaway layup, drop a three from steps beyond the arc or hit a clutch jumper to keep momentum on her team’s side. For someone seemingly so cold-blooded, it’s when she’s hot that she does her best.
“When Victoria scores,” Schaefer explained, “our team relaxes and plays better.”
That explains plenty about MSU’s strong play once Vivians got going after a cold first quarter for the Bulldogs. The Mocs led the Bulldogs 16-11 after the game’s first period, but by halftime, paced by Vivians, State had pulled off an 18-5 run and made the score 29-21 in their favor. By the end of the game, of course, MSU held a permanent double-digit lead, a final score of 60-50. Thanks to a full team effort, both the cause and result of Vivians’ latest grand performance.
When she hit back-to-back threes in the second half, Vivians said she was giving herself a heat check to see if she really was in the zone. Turns out, she was. And because of that, the Bulldogs moved on. With 27 wins, they’ve tied the school record for most in a season, and now they have a chance to set a new mark in front of thousands on Sunday. Playing like this, they may just do it.
“We’re making history,” Vivians said.