Humphrey Coliseum, in a nod to glories of the past, held up the new stars of today and tomorrow, taking its old form not as a building, but as a weapon capable of being turned against any foe, as an advantage given only to the home team. On Sunday, with a trip to the Sweet Sixteen on the line, The Hump was rockin’ as it propelled Mississippi State to the promised land, a coliseum full of millions of bricks, thousands of people and two basketball teams locked in a fight until the final second.
The Hump came to life, as it has so many times before, and as a result, the Bulldogs emerged victorious, taking down Michigan State 74-72 to advance to the Sweet Sixteen of the Women’s NCAA Tournament.
“We don’t win that game if we’re not at home,” head coach Vic Schaefer said after. “Our fans were tremendous … If you were in that arena, you were a part of that win.”
Said Michigan State head coach Suzy Merchant, “I’ve been a head coach for 21 years. I’ve played in front of some big crowds, probably a few bigger than that one. But I’ve never, ever played in front of a crowd that loud. Ever. That was the loudest crowd I’ve ever played in front of.
“What was the attendance,” she then asked as she checked the game notes. “7,000? It sounded like there were 70,000 in here.”
Schaefer agreed with her. Just this year MSU has had larger crowds in The Hump, setting a record with over 10,600 for a tilt against South Carolina. But this time, with the season on the line, in the definition of a do-or-die game, the State fans were even louder, despite their marginally smaller numbers. Louder than they’ve been at any point in the four years Schaefer has been coaching games at The Hump, as he said after the game.
This time, the crowd didn’t just make noise around the game. The fans impacted the game itself. All three of Mississippi State’s players in the post-game press conference called the atmosphere a distinct advantage, citing not just a vague “energy” but actual, specific moments in which the game was changed because of those watching, and, more specifically, yelling in the stands.
At halftime, the Bulldogs were up by six. By midway through the third quarter, the home team had broken open a 13-point lead. But then the scoring stopped. After Victoria Vivians hit a bucket at the 5:35 mark of the third quarter, Michigan State went on a 20-0 run, not just closing the gap, but gaining a lead and extending it to multiple possessions.
The Bulldogs look gassed, winded and over-matched. The Spartans looked confident, like a fighter who knows the knockout punch is coming. But Mississippi State got off the mat, 15 players being lifted up by 7,000 fans. The crowd breathed energy into a team that had seemingly lost all momentum and passion. And the Bulldogs bounced back.
“I wish I could have shook all 7,094 of their hands,” Schaefer said. “Wish we could’ve hugged all their necks. Because they deserved it. They pulled us through.”
With new life, The Bulldogs got back the lead they had worked so hard for the first three quarters. Then they lost it, won it again, and lost it once more. Until, finally, they got the last lead of the game.
But boy, did they have to work for it. With 30.6 seconds left and the game tied at 69, junior forward Breanna Richardson found herself just behind the three-point line with the ball in her hands and no one in front of her. As if she’d been practicing for the moment her whole life, Richardson never blinked. She sank the shot, the crowd went nuts, and they had half a minute to make sure they didn’t let Michigan State get the lead back.
But could the Spartans tie it up? Just six seconds after Richardson made her three, another three was attempted on the other end. It was a miss, but the shooter was fouled and Branndais Agee went to the line for three free throws and a chance to tie it up.
Richardson, however, had no fear. Not once the crowd got involved, anyway.
“There were times you couldn’t hear anything,” Spartan guard Tori Jankosa told reporters later.
“On the free throw line,” Richardson recalled as she reflected on that tense moment, “they were yelling so hard my ears were ringing. I knew she was going to miss them.”
And miss them she did, the first two bouncing off the rim, only the third falling into the net.
Moments later, the Bulldogs won, the crowd went wild and Mississippi State took the court in celebration, onto the Sweet Sixteen.
“You won’t ever forget today,” Schaefer said. “As a student-athlete, as a coach, maybe as a fan, you’ll never forget today.
“I couldn’t be prouder today. What a heck of a basketball game … tremendous.”