Vic Schaefer likes to refer to Teaira McCowan as an aircraft carrier on occasion, and considering the sophomore forward is 6’7” with an even longer wingspan, the comparison makes some sense. On Sunday, Schaefer had en entire fleet of ships, a set of four forwards defending their basket like carriers protect their homeland and dominating the paint with the same might and precision of a military offensive.
Mississippi State beat a talented DePaul team in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in Starkville by a score of 92-71, and they did so on the backs of their forwards. Schaefer’s quartet of Breanna Richardson, Chinwe Okorie, Ketara Chapel and McCowan paved the way early, dominating the paint and controlling the boards against a squad of Blue Demons that just didn’t have the size to compete. MSU ultimately out-rebounded DePaul 48-26 and 52 of the Bulldogs’ 92 points came in the paint, the four aircraft carriers accounting for nearly 40 of them.
“It was easy for us to go inside,” point guard Jazzmun Holmes said after her 14-point and six-assist performance, “and we could finish.”
“They’ve got a lot of weapons,” DePaul coach Doug Bruno added, having previously admitted, “we were not able to defensively stop Mississippi State.”
With MSU commanding things around the basket early, the DePaul defense was forced to crowd the lane, opening things up for State’s shooters to have a field day of jumpers and threes. The Bulldogs shot 75 percent from three in the second half and hit nearly 60 percent of all field goals in the final two quarters. Junior guard Blair Schaefer emerged as one of the primary benefactors, dropping 18 points over the course of the game, and that coming after a 21-point career day in round one on Friday.
“We talked at halftime that we needed to instill our will out there,” she said after the game, reflecting on what made MSU so successful in the second half. “When they put so much emphasis on our post players, it just opens up so many things for us on the perimeter.”
The back-to-back outings for the younger Schaefer are indicative of the performances of MSU’s entire team in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs had a rough end to the regular season and SEC Tournament, causing some to ask their coach just this week if perhaps his team had peaked too early in the season. By dropping 112 points in the first round and beating a ranked team by over 20 in the second round, Schaefer and his players answered the question with an emphatic no.
“I talked to my kids today in pre-game about who we are and what we’re known for,” Schaefer said. “I talked about toughness and competitive spirit.”
Not only are they back to form, but with a new lineup and one of the deepest benches in the country, they might be even better than they were at their best midseason. State is no longer ranked No. 2 in the country like it was for so much of the regular season, but with the postseason well underway, it’s the performances that matter, not the respect, and MSU is playing like a team who is scared of no one and prepared for anybody.
Like a game of Risk, MSU’s victories won them more ground in the postseason, a national power still on the aggressive with the NCAA Tournament field cut in half. On the backs of their fleet of aircraft carriers, the Bulldogs are only looking stronger as they go.
“Hopefully we’re getting hot at the right time of year,” Schaefer said. “That’s what this tournament is all about.”