When Mississippi State’s bus shifted into park at Chesapeake Energy Arena, the team managers quickly hopped off first, as is their custom, and the rest of the staff waited while the players began to follow from the back. But then Vic Schaefer stood up and held a staying hand out as he walked halfway down the bus to where his players were preparing to leave.
“Hey, headphones off, y’all,” he said as he got the attention of his full roster. “Everybody hear me? Listen up. Do not get off this bus unless you believe that we are going to beat Baylor and go to the Final Four.”
Here, Schaefer paused and looked over his team, making sure the message was sinking in and giving his players a short second to reflect on their deepest thoughts and see what the truth really was.
“You gotta believe it,” he continued. “You gotta know it. So don’t get off this bus unless you BELIEVE it.”
Schaefer gave them one more meaningful look as he turned and walked off the bus. For a brief moment, no one moved, then in unison, the line of Bulldogs began to file down the aisle and off the bus.
They all believed.
And they believed when few others did. Schaefer struggled to hide his indignation after MSU beat Washington in the Sweet Sixteen, saying his team deserved far more respect than most had been willing to give. When the Bulldogs advanced, despite the predictions of many in the media, they were given even less of a chance to beat the No. 1 seed Baylor in the Elite Eight.
Baylor is too big, MSU was told, too deep and too talented, too motivated and too well-coached to lose this game. Sure, MSU was seemingly told, they had done well to get so far, but Oklahoma City was where this great season was destined to end.
Perhaps that’s why Schaefer checked one last time to make sure his players believed what he was convinced was true. And he wouldn’t have asked them the question if he didn’t know the answer was yes. But the challenge served as a final motivation, an ultimate reminder to stand strong with their convictions and their belief in themselves.
From tipoff through the end of regulation and then again through overtime, the Bulldogs showed their belief. They never lacked for confidence, nor seemed to question what they had collectively decided was true: they were going to beat Baylor and they were going to go to the Final Four. And that’s what they did, taking down the Bears 94-85 in overtime.
MSU’s run through the first three rounds of the NCAA Tournament came on the heels of a new lineup and the backs of young talent, but appropriately, it was the veterans who had established the program as nationally-relevant that stepped up to ensure victory would be theirs. Inserted back into the lineup, junior Victoria Vivians played one of the best games of her almost entirely stellar career, scoring 24 points, grabbing six rebounds, notching six assists and wrangling two steals.
And in a matchup billed as the battle of bigs, it was the smallest player on the court who had the biggest game of them all. Junior point guard Morgan William played the game of her life, dropping 41 points and racking up seven steals in a game that stands for now as the shining moment of her career in Maroon and White. Just one day removed the third anniversary of her father’s sudden death, William played “for an audience of one,” as her head coach explained it after the win.
When Schaefer wrapped her in an embrace immediately following the final buzzer, William buried her face in his shoulder with tears in her eyes. Moments later, she was the first Bulldog up the ladder to begin cutting down the net, a teary-eyed and deeply-rooted smile on her face.
“Our point guard was as good as they get today,” Schaefer said. “She put us on her back. She led us.”
In her career performance, William helped make history for a program that has never won more games, never made it so far, never before reached the Final Four. It’s an achievement that Schaefer knew, once again, would not have come with out faith and belief in what he said and in what he promised. Yes, he asked them to believe they would win this one game tonight. But more than that, it was years ago when he asked the veterans of this team to believe that they could one day reach a game such as this.
The seniors on this team signed on before they’d even seen Schaefer coach a game. Juniors like William and Vivians joined the party when he’d had nothing but a single, losing season. And because they believed then, they saw his promise fulfilled in Oklahoma City.
“They believed in a vision when it wasn’t real easy to believe,” Schaefer said.
Thanks to their faith – and a whole lot of three pointers – Mississippi State is going to the Final Four.