At 24-0 and ranked No. 2 in the country, Mississippi State is the only Southeastern Conference team in the Top 10 nationally for scoring offense, and it is the only SEC team in the full Top 25 of scoring defense in all of women’s basketball. In fact, you have to drop all the way down through the 30s before you find another team in the conference on that list.
Perhaps that isn’t surprising, though. After all, Mississippi State has the only defense in the SEC that doesn’t have to play Mississippi State’s offense. At least not in a game, anyway.
MSU’s identity under head coach Vic Schaefer has been defense, the specialty and area of focus for the man tabbed “The Minister of Defense” when he was hired almost five years ago. But as the defending National Finalists are dominating their regular season schedule, they’re not just doing with their usual suffocating defense – this team has turned into a juggernaut on the offensive end of the floor. At 83.1 points per game, the Bulldogs are far and away the best in the conference, and they’re proving themselves yet again to be among the best in the country.
Much of that success, of course, comes from a pair of players that everyone knows – Victoria Vivians and Teaira McCowan. They’re renowned for good reason, both of them in the Top 5 in the SEC in points per game with Vivians averaging 19.6 and McCowan at 19.3.
In many games, those two alone are practically enough to beat someone. But in one of the toughest conferences in the country, two players can’t always do it on their own, and that’s why Schaefer’s team is streaking through the regular season. He’s got more than just those two, and no one to date has figured out what to do about it.
Just for starters, if an opponent double-teams McCowan in the post, Vivians is sure to go off. But say someone manages to limit both of those stars, then it’s time for any number of Schaefer’s weapons to be put into action.
While Vivians and McCowan get the headlines, the Bulldogs have a pair of guards among the deadliest shooters in the conference. Senior Blair Schaefer is shooting 42% from three-point range, while the versatile junior Roshunda Johnson is just behind her, drilling threes at a 39% clip.
“That in and of itself allows Teaira not to be double-teamed,” Schaefer said. “When Teaira is doubled, we can play through her and she finds these two out on the perimeter.”
McCowan, by the way, is completely fine with that. Against South Carolina Monday, she was perfectly pleased to haul in a game-high 20 rebounds while she let her teammates do the bulk of the scoring. That game serves as a perfect example of what makes MSU so hard to defend.
In the first half against the Gamecocks, Vivians was playing beyond even her high standards, and by halftime, she had scored a full 20 points. At that point, Blair Schaefer only had two points. USC, naturally, changed their game plan to try and slow down Vivians. She only had four points in the game’s final two quarters, but with so much attention diverted to guarding Vivians and McCowan, Schaefer went off. By the final minute of the fourth quarter, she had 14 points and MSU had the victory sealed up.
And then of course – how easily one forgets – there’s Morgan William, the senior point guard who last year hit one of the biggest shots in the history of basketball at any level and put on one of the greatest postseason performances that women’s college basketball has seen. Ignore her at your own peril.
“Arkansas didn’t guard Mo,” Schaefer recalled. “She went 8-for-11 in the first half.”
And MSU won by 40 as William totaled 18 points that night.
All of this fails to even mention the stellar play of State’s role players, guards and forwards alike coming off the bench to play meaningful minutes, to offer flexibility in size and skillset. As MSU navigated an eight-day stretch that started with a rivalry game on the road at Ole Miss, continued with a road game against No. 15 Missouri and finished days later with No. 7 USC at home, it was thanks to players like Jazzmun Holmes, the reserve point guard who racked up eight assists in 22 minutes against the Gamecocks, and Chloe Bibby, the freshman forward who stepped into the biggest game of the year and played with as much ease and confidence as if it were just a pick-up game with friends. And the list doesn’t even stop there.
In most post-game press conferences, the head coach is joined at the podium by one or two players. Sometimes coaches even do it alone. On Monday night, Schaefer sat in the middle of five of his players, enough to fill out a full starting lineup. That visual served as a perfect example of what has made his team just so difficult to stop.
“It’s hard to pick who you’re not going to guard,” Schaefer admitted. “Just picking your poison, it’s really hard. I’d hate to try to have to figure out who to not guard on this team, because you’ve got some kids that can really do some things, and they’re not just one-dimensional.”
“It really gives us flexibility to do some things and get some mismatches offensively,” he said. “I like our flexibility. I like our ability to change our lineup. It really adds a dimension to our team that we haven’t had. We’re a little bit different and harder to defend sometimes.”
Perhaps the important part of it all is that those pieces all work so well together. They’ve put in the work and the hours. They’ve had the experiences and battles. Through it all, they’ve grown closer, grown to know each other, and grown into a set of pieces that operate as one unstoppable force.
“I’m proud of the chemistry this team has,” Schaefer said after his most recent record-breaking win. “I just think our whole team has that, and that’s why we’re where we are today. I think they played for each other today.”