What do you say, what do you do, when you’ve already poured it all out? How do you hold your head high when your heart has dropped so low? You can’t speak to what you’ve done unless you also confess to what happened.
Mississippi State played in the National Championship game on Sunday night. And on that same night, South Carolina beat Mississippi State 67-55, winning a National Title for the Gamecocks, and losing one for the Bulldogs. It was the third time USC beat MSU this year, and every single one of those losses took away a championship MSU would otherwise have won.
Those are the facts of the game, and for those in the MSU locker room, the facts are as cold, hard and miserable as the dead of winter.
When the PA announced there was one minute remaining and a glance up at the scoreboard told the Bulldogs they were still down by double-digits, a few tears began to fall. When, with 44 seconds left, Vic Schaefer removed the players on the court and inserted each player who had not yet seen action, the crying began in earnest. As those on the court came off, MSU’s head coach hugged them, told them he was proud of them, and attempted to remain in control of his own emotions. Once each had sat down, Schaefer took a moment to walk down the bench.
“Good job, seniors,” he told his four veterans.
It was the most he could muster and still remain in the moment, but it was also the truest thing he could have said. They did do a good job. They did a great job, in fact, and they will go out as the winningest senior class ever at MSU by a wide margin. Of course, they’d have liked to extend that record by one more.
They had come so far just to fall short.
But still, they came so far. The entire team did. They spent most of the year at No. 2 in the country, and after a rough end to the regular season, they bounced back by powering their way through the toughest road to the title game the NCAA Tournament could possibly provide.
MSU beat the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer and the year’s leading rebounder, then turned around and toppled the one-seed with the biggest lineup in basketball. Their reward was to be charged with doing the impossible. And they did it. At the end of the run, Troy, DePaul, Washington, Baylor and UConn were all left reeling and looking back at the team that ended their season.
“As our athletic director just reminded us,” Schaefer said, “there were 347 teams today watching that game on TV, and we were one of the two still playing.
“Today doesn’t define us,” he continued. “It certainly doesn’t define this season. We had a great year.”
Without question, this is a team that will be defined by its wins. It will be defined by the records it set. It will be defined as the best in the 139-history of the school, the first Mississippi State team to ever play a game with the National Championship on the line.
Perhaps more than anything, at least to those who watched them over the course of the year and followed their run to the title game, this team will be defined by its character. The country fell in love with Morgan William when she scored 41 points in MSU’s Elite Eight upset of Baylor and dedicated the performance to her late father. Five days later, America was in awe of “Itty Bitty” when her jumper fell through the basket as the buzzer went off and the Bulldogs pulled off the biggest upset in basketball history.
Sportswriters in Dallas to cover the Final Four were baffled when they saw the talent MSU put on the floor, because they just didn’t understand where it came from. Their recruiting rankings and reports just didn’t add up to the product that was right in front of their eyes.
“How is it,” multiple reporters asked Schaefer and his players, “that you’re the only team here without a McDonald’s All-American on the roster? I mean, you don’t even have one.”
Heart, Schaefer would tell them. You can’t measure it. Tough defense doesn’t show up on a stat sheet. Neither do clutch or determination. And that’s why Schaefer thinks MSU fans love their team so much. He believes it’s because of the relationships forged between players and fans. He feels that the way his team plays the game is endearing to the people of Mississippi.
“When we’re in The Hump, we get louder cheers when one of our girls takes a charge than we do for any big three-pointer,” he said. “I think our fans appreciate blue collar.”
It’s the same reason MSU fans first loved Dak Prescott so much, Schaefer continued. Sure, he’s good, but mostly, he’s tough.
“He never ran to the boundary,” Schaefer said. “He was gonna run you over.
“Our girls,” he finished, “don’t run to the boundary.”
No, they ran to the very end. When the final second ticked off the clock of the 2017 season, the Bulldogs were still on the court. In a season where State knocked over nearly everyone in its path, they finally suffered their own defeat. And to see their faces, to hear their strained voices as they tried to answer questions from both within and without, falling from the top of the mountain hurts a lot more than falling at the start.
But, to be sure, the view was worth it, and the final fall will only serve as motivation to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
In the locker room, when Schaefer is speaking with his team, he has four rows of seats in front of him. The front row is for the seniors, the second is for the juniors, the third for the sophomores and the fourth for the freshmen.
“Are we disappointed? Absolutely,” Schaefer recalled telling his team. “But I challenged the second and third row: OK, now it’s your team … Don’t minimize this moment. How you feel? Remember it. Wrap your arms around it. Use it as fuel.”
Even loss can lead to victory.
“I’m still waiting for the confetti to come down and my kids to be able to stand there in it,” Schaefer said. “We’ll be back.”