Three times last year, the Bulldogs missed their moment. The streamers in place were never loosed after the team lost at home to end the regular season not with a championship but with embarrassment at their performance in front of such a large crowd. A week later, they left the floor as the tournament trophy was wheeled out past them and taken to the rowdy celebration at midcourt. A month after that, they trudged through confetti one last time, walking away from the winner’s circle and off to the locker room while someone else’s national title celebration rang through the walls.
On Sunday, those moments found redemption as the cameras rolled, as the Bulldogs assembled at midcourt, as the trophy was passed around and as, finally, the cheers echoing through the stands were for them and the confetti falling to the court was theirs and theirs alone.
The sign being passed around announced the accomplishment – Mississippi State Women’s Basketball: 2018 SEC Champions.
“Finally, our kids aren’t in the locker room and we’re listening to somebody scream,” head coach Vic Schaefer said Sunday night, nearly two hours after the celebration began. “It’s us.”
Told that she had been spotted playing in maroon and white confetti like a kid seeing snow for the first time, senior guard Victoria Vivians expressed a similar sentiment of relish and redemption.
“It’s always thrown in our face and it’s never ours,” she said. “It was finally ours.”
In the middle of that celebration, Schaefer addressed the 9,933 MSU fans in Humphrey Coliseum to talk about what they had done together.
“I believed and I dreamed of this day with you here to share in this moment,” he told the crowd. “This is what makes Mississippi State University so very special.”
And as much as Mississippi State is special to him, it was a special moment for Mississippi State, too. In the most literal sense, MSU’s win in a basketball game made history. It created history. It’s what Schaefer’s team has been doing for the better part of two years now, and longer than that on some occasions.
Sunday wasn’t just the first SEC Championship for the women’s basketball program; it was the first conference championship by any women’s team in the 140 years since MSU was founded. Somewhere along the way, this team started making history that was bigger than itself, bigger than one group of players.
Two weeks ago, on a Monday night, State beat South Carolina by double digits in front of the biggest crowd in the history of Humphrey Coliseum. Not the biggest crowd for women’s basketball. It was the biggest crowd for any basketball, for any event, for any reason people have had to gather inside those brick walls.
The Hump has been host to No. 1 teams, to defending national champs and eventual national champs. Hall of famers and No. 1 picks have played in the building as part of both home and visiting teams.
It even had Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner and Garth Brooks, all in their prime.
Twice, The Hump been the home court of Final Four squads.
But no one drew a bigger crowd than this team. With good reason, it turns out. Schaefer knows how special this particular group is.
“The best team I’ve coached in 33 years,” he said with no hint of exaggeration or surprise.
Yes, even better than the team that played for a National Championship less than a year ago, the team that pulled off the biggest upset in the history of basketball. This group is better than that, Schaefer says.
But don’t take his word for it. Ask his longtime friend and mentor, Texas A&M coach Gary Blair, the man on the other end of the confetti celebration on Sunday.
“Mississippi State is a well-rounded team,” he said following the 76-55 loss Sunday night. “They are better than they were last year because they’re a better offensive team. That’s the difference.”
That fact, that assertion that MSU is better offensively, can’t be denied. Under a coach known for his defensive acumen and intensity, it’s offense that has paved the way for Schaefer’s team. Five times this season, the Bulldogs have cracked 100 points. 12 times, they’ve scored 90 or more.
In early February, playing their fourth game in 11 days, playing their third road game in as many days, coming off back-to-back victories over two of the best teams in the conference and starting that whole run with a road game at rival Ole Miss, travel-weary MSU went down to Florida and won 98-50.
The Bulldogs can score.
And what’s more, they can keep other teams from doing the same. For much of the non-conference schedule and well into the SEC slate, Schaefer bemoaned the defensive struggles of his team. They weren’t playing defense the way he expected his teams to play it. Yeah, he said, they were winning games with their offense, but he repeated time and again that there would be days when that wasn’t enough. Shots won’t always fall, but defense always shows up. And finally, his did.
On January 21, MSU played at Tennessee and won 71-52. Since that day, no one has scored more than 55 on the Bulldogs. MSU has finished with scores of their own as high as 98 and as low as 57, and they’ve won every time.
With fireworks on offense and brick walls on defense, Mississippi State isn’t the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object. The Bulldogs are the unstoppable force and the immovable object.
28-0, SEC Champions.
“These kids have answered the bell every single night,” Schaefer said as he recounted the accomplishments of his team.
But as the celebration wound down inside Humphrey Coliseum, the head coach added one important caveat.
“We’re not done.”