Postseason Return Marks Program’s Return For Howland, MSU

Aric Holman and Quinndary Weatherspoon are the old guys on this team. It happened quickly, but now as juniors, they represent the first people to sign on with Ben Howland, believe in what he was doing and commit themselves to seeing his vision become a reality.

Three years ago, they were told they could help return Mississippi State basketball to the spotlight, and when they arrived on campus, they stated that as their goal. It took all of those three years to start seeing the fruits of their labor, but Wednesday night in The Hump – even if it wasn’t the exact tournament they were hoping for – was a return to the postseason for a once-proud program that seems to have found its pride once again.

When Mississippi State hosted Nebraska in the NIT, it was the first postseason game for MSU since Holman and Weatherspoon were in the ninth grade. When the Bulldogs beat the Cornhuskers, it was the first postseason win since they were in middle school. Suffice to say, it’s been a while, and this appearance was both an exhale of relief that the former glory is beginning to return and an inhalation of excitement at what the future holds for a team without a single scholarship senior on the roster.

“It means a lot, knowing that we haven’t been in the postseason in I don’t know how long,” Weatherspoon said. “It feels great to be in the postseason. We didn’t get it done my first two years here. This means we’re moving forward. Hopefully we can keep building and building.”

That’s the idea, according to Howland. This is the third time he’s been in the NIT, having done it once each in his head coaching stops at Northern Arizona and Pittsburgh. Now, just as then, he of course wishes his team could’ve won just another game or two and found its way to the NCAA Tournament. But for a program that appears to be on its way back up, and with a roster full of young talent, Howland knows how meaningful these do-or-die postseason experiences can be.

“It’s definitely helping us now,” he said. “To have 23 wins now, with an opportunity to get 24 and keep advancing in the postseason, it’s huge. Guys are getting a taste of what it’s like to play beyond the SEC Tournament. We’re very disappointed that the three didn’t go down with four seconds to go against Tennessee and give us a chance to keep advancing and have a chance to be in the NCAA Tournament. But this is definitely a positive for our team, our program.”

Much of what it means to the program comes in the opportunity to give fans something to cheer for, something to buy into. That’s why Howland has spent many of his free nights visiting fraternities and sororities on campus, giving away cheese fries in the Cotton District or filming videos asking for support. He’s known they were building toward something special, and he wanted to bring the fans back into the fold.

The team knows that MSU is a fanbase that has been patiently – and sometimes impatiently – waiting for something to cheer for, something to be proud of. There were hints and sparks of such a thing the last couple years, and finally, as so-often happens for Howland, year three launched a more serious movement and a collection of victories and performances that had people excited again, if not cautiously so. And that’s not to say there weren’t lows, but for what felt like the first time in a while, there were more than enough highs to support continuous optimism.

Lamar Peters, the sophomore point guard who racked up 14 assists in Wednesday’s game, knows how badly so many thousands of people have been waiting for something like this.

“It was a very big win,” he said. “It’s always a big deal to advance to the postseason. It’s been a long time since it’s happened in Starkville so we just wanted to come out and not be flat and get the victory and have the Starkville community be happy for something in men’s basketball.”

To be sure, this is not a settling point in the short or long-term senses. MSU isn’t happy enough to have won a single postseason game and call it quits for the this year. Nor do they have the desire to be in the NIT again any time soon. The NCAA Tournament is the goal moving forward, and winning games there will be the new yearly standard. But, like anything, there are steps to be taken, and this postseason is a big one.

“Every year, we’re progressing and becoming a better program and better team and just improving every moment we can. It’s headed in the right direction,” Holman said. “We’ve improved a lot [since] Q and I first got here. Now, guys are buying in and wanting to be a part of something great instead of just wanting to be an average team.”

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Senior Track Star Boss Jumping Her Way Into Record Books

At a tire and auto-repair shop in a small town in Florida, there is a room with glass walls lined practically from top-to-bottom and side-to-side with what amounts to a shrine for the 2018 women’s high jump SEC Champion. Amber Boss, along with her husband and owner of the shop Thomas Boss, has plastered the walls to celebrate the achievements of their oldest daughter, Logan Boss, a senior high-jumper at Mississippi State.

There are newspaper clippings from high school, stories printed off the internet, pictures from any source imaginable and even team posters from MSU’s track and field team covering all the available space in the room. Thomas and Amber, needless to say, are quite proud of their daughter, and that’s why they will be in College Station this weekend, taking a mini-vacation from Florida to journey out west.

After winning the SEC indoor high jump title two weeks ago, Logan Boss is after the biggest prize the NCAA has to offer: a National Championship. Appropriately, it will be at the same facility housed by Texas A&M where Boss won the SEC Championship last month and where she placed third at Nationals last year.

“I’m really excited to be back at Texas A&M because I jump well there. It works with me,” she said. “SECs were kind of the first step. The ultimate goal is a National Championship.”

The way Boss has been jumping lately, she may reach her goal this weekend. Despite winning the SEC Title with a meet record of 1.91 meters in the high jump, it wasn’t even her best jump of the season. That came earlier in the year when she set a school record with a jump of 1.92 meters, or six feet and three-and-a-half inches. That 1.92 gave her the third-best indoor jump of all time in the Southeastern Conference.

And she nearly beat it again two weeks ago, coming millimeters away from setting the SEC record.

As recorded in MSU’s release on the attempt: “Boss attempted to jump 1.94m, the mark needed to enter international competition and set an SEC record, but she came up short. It appeared she had cleared on her second try, but the bar wobbled on its pedestals before eventually falling.”

Despite the high-level of her performance at this point in the year and the clear confidence she’s competing with, Boss actually never thought such a thing was even possible. Before each season, she meets with MSU jumps coach Steve Thomas and he sets out a plan for what height she will jump that year.

“My coach has told me how good I would be every year,” she said. “We set marks every year, and when we set those marks, I think he’s nuts. I just think there’s no way I can jump that high. Then I end up jumping that high. I’m like, I don’t know how you knew that or how you did that, but I did it.”

The way Thomas knew, it turned out, was pretty easy. He just watched Boss work.

“One of the things that we always think about in training jumpers is, how strong can we get an athlete?” he explained. “As her strength levels go up, we know her jumping ability is going to go up.”

So when Thomas found out that Boss was leg pressing 800 pounds in the weight room this offseason, he knew good things were coming.

Of course, the conclusion of the indoor season isn’t the end for Boss. She still has another outdoor season left, and even after she finishes her MSU career, there is plenty more to be done.

If Boss is able to hit the 1.94-meter mark she came so close to jumping in the SEC Championships, she will automatically qualify for international competition. Even from that point, there would still be more cuts to be made, but Boss is well on her way to turning a dream into a surreal reality. She wants to play for Team USA, and the fact that such a sentence can realistically come out of her mouth remains a crazy sensation for the senior from O’Brien, Florida.

“It’s just weird for me to feel that close,” she said. “I know what I’m doing is awesome and incredible for me, but to put it into perspective compared to everyone else, I’m jumping with the pros and that just kind of blows my mind.”

However, jumping isn’t all that’s on Boss’s mind lately. In an accomplishment that makes her just as proud as any, she graduates with her degree in Kinesiology this May. After that, she’s already been accepted into MSU’s MBA program where she will continue her education.

Here in the middle of 2018, there is a lot going on for Logan Boss.

“And it is crazy,” she said. “I’m about to graduate college and that’s going to be the most incredible accomplishment for me. I just won SECs, but I think graduating is going to be in the same realm of how proud I am of myself and how much I feel like I’ve accomplished.”

And if she has her way, there are plenty of accomplishments left to come.

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Behind The Designing Of The New Dude

In June of 2013, Michael Boerner was watching college baseball on his iPad while at a conference in San Diego. His alma mater, Mississippi State, was unexpectedly one of the hottest teams in the country, and the Bulldogs were cruising through the postseason, already deep into a College World Series run.

Boerner, an architect for Wier, Boerner, Allin in Jackson, Mississippi, was due to fly back home as soon as the conference ended. But when his iPad showed his team win yet another game and clinch an appearance in the Championship Series – the first time MSU had ever played for a National Championship in any sport – Boerner called his associates at the firm to make a change of plans.

Meet me in Omaha.

So with a bag packed for southern California, Boerner made way for northern Nebraska to watch his Bulldogs play for the Championship.

Nearly five years later, Boerner was in Jackson preparing for a trip to Starkville where he was scheduled to make a presentation about the new MSU Baseball stadium his firm had designed, a speaking engagement at the First Pitch Banquet to kick off the 2018 baseball season. Shortly before leaving, Boerner dug out the old suitcase he had taken to San Diego and that had been redirected to Omaha. When he opened it up, something he had apparently never unpacked fell out of one of the pockets.

On one side of the bar coaster was the logo for “Mr. Toad,” an Irish pub in Omaha, and on the back was something he had completely forgotten: one of the first-ever sketches of the new Dudy Noble, the soon-to-be-open stadium about which he was on his way to speak.

At the time of the World Series in 2013, the firm had already been approached about making plans for the future of MSU’s baseball stadium, but only recently had discussions begun to change from a renovation of the current one to the construction of a brand new stadium. The kindling for creative flame had just been placed, and when the three arrived in Omaha, the sparks flew and lit the fire.

On their first full day in town, the trio took a tour of TD Ameritrade Park, the new and highly-praised home of the College World Series. That night, the group settled in for dinner at Mr. Toads. Inspired by what they had seen, they quickly started bouncing around ideas, their collective creativity snowballing as they threw out suggestions, discussed their merits and built upon the visions they all had popping into their imaginations.

“A few beers at Mr. Toad’s helped us to be a little more free with our thoughts,” Boerner now says with a laugh.

Soon enough, the waters of discussion rose so high that they could no longer be contained in words spoken aloud. Without a notebook handy, Boerner searched around for some kind of disposable surface to sketch out their plans. When he spotted an unused paper coaster on the table, he flipped it over, grabbed a pen and got to work.

Certainly, there existed more professional renderings and drawings back at the office in Jackson, but that night was when what the New Dude would eventually become was born. There in Omaha was the first time the right field plaza was discussed, the visually-arresting grand entrance to the outfield. That was when they brought up the potential to take a portion of the land behind the left field wall and erect loft apartments, one of the most unique and ambitious touches to a college baseball stadium anywhere.

Taking inspiration from another of their favorite features from TD Ameritrade Park, the group made plans for what Boerner calls the “parade route” that runs the entire circumference of the stadium, an open concourse circling out from home, all through the outfield and back into the grandstands. There isn’t place to stand where you can’t see the game, from the home entrance to the berms and into the new Left Field Lounge.

“Think Neshoba County fair cabins meets Bourbon Street,” he says now.

All of it sketched onto a coaster that Boerner slipped into his back pocket without a second thought at the end of one unexpected night in late June of 2013.

“It was all part of the magical experience of being in Omaha for the World Series,” he says. “To this day, I still have to pinch myself when I walk around the stadium.”

The amount of people involved in making the New Dude a reality is borderline staggering, from athletic directors, contractors and construction workers, to designers Wier, Boerner, Allin and advisors Populous and even famed baseball architect and MSU alum Janet Marie-Smith, who offered her expert input.

The full team of designers, builders, creators and thinkers has worked for over half of a decade – a work now nearing completion – to create the premier venue in college baseball, a home deserving of the most dedicated fanbase in the sport.

And it all came from a coaster at Mr. Toad’s.

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Confetti Falls: Bulldogs Claim First SEC Championship

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.”

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Behind The Dominant Play Of #HailStateHoops

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.”

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Q&A With New MSU Football Strength Coach Anthony Piroli

Last week, Bob Carskadon from the HailStateBEAT sat down with Mississippi State football’s new strength and conditioning coach Anthony Piroli. Hired by first-year head coach Joe Moorhead, Piroli was an assistant on MSU’s strength staff during the 2014 season and spent the last three years as an assistant under the legendary Buddy Morris with the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals.

The following is the full question and answer session from that interview.

Bob Carskadon: Let’s start by talking about the players. Those who know college football know how important your position is and how much time you spend with the team even when other coaches aren’t around. What’s your big picture approach, style and philosophy in working with your players?

Anthony Piroli: First and foremost, coming from an NFL background, one of the things that I guess you could say I missed, was the collegiate setting. You really do get a lot more time and a lot more opportunities to develop these players through the years that you know you’re going to have them. If you do the right things in those time periods, you can get the most of out of your players. It’s really about maximizing their potential. Those are essentially the things were’ trying to do here – maximize their potential.

In a nutshell, we’re just looking to make better football players out of everyone here. We’re not necessarily trying to make a guy look good in a mirror, or make a guy bench press or squat something that he can do in a competition. At the end of the day, are we making them a better football player? Or at least helping bridge the gap between the weight room and the field for the position coaches so that they can then do their job. That’s the most generic sense of it, but that’s how we look at it from the base level.

BC: As you mentioned, you were in the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals the last several years. What were some of the things you learned there that you can apply at this level at MSU?

AP: The greatest thing I saw there was that even at the most elite level, when you’re really putting the best product out there on the floor – and what I mean by that is the training program itself is as individualized as possible – and the players actually start to see the benefits on the field, then they’re willing to do anything for you. It really doesn’t take that much twisting of the arm at that point in time because at the end of the day, all these athletes want to be better at their sport. If they’re starting to see those results happen faster and faster, that’s pretty much taking care of all the other things that you would normally have to see.

BC: As we’ve mentioned before, you were at Mississippi State back in 2014 for one of the best seasons in program history, and it was after that year that you went to Arizona to join the staff of the Cardinals. What a lot of people don’t know is that through all of that, Joe Moorhead has actually been tracking your career this whole time, and in fact, he wanted to hire you as the head strength coach at Fordham when he was named the head coach there. You of course had a great opportunity in Arizona and went to work with your mentor Buddy Morris, but now that you guys are together, what makes him the kind of coach you want to work for?

AP: Having some common people in the field that we’re both close with, whatever he heard about me was obviously positive if he was following that far back. Those are all things that played into this. Coach Joe and I are kind of cut from the same cloth, just hard-working, blue-collar type guys from the same area. Probably the same type of upbringing in our family situation.

I told him right after he got this job that one of the things he would like the most about the players I know in this program is that’s exactly who they are. I know it might be the south and people might not see similarities between steel country up north and down here, but that’s what I’ve seen in these players when I was hear last and I already see it now. One thing you don’t have to teach Mississippi State football players is effort and how to work hard, because these guys go a million miles an hour all the time. Any strength and conditioning coach or head football coach that could walk into that situation is blessed.

BC: What was it like when you got the call from Moorhead asking you to come work for him and come back to Mississippi State?

AP: Obviously, you never know when it’s really going to happen, when the time is going to come, when you’re going to get that call. I had a little bit of a hint that the possibility may have existed. I was at home and we had just got done winning a game. It was late for us in Arizona, so I’ve got to imagine it was really late here. My wife woke me up letting me know my phone was ringing and it was him. He basically just started to talk to me about the program and I was taken aback like, whoa, do I have the job? That was essentially it. At that point in time, I kind of figured out that he was pretty much a straight shooter and we were just going to hit the ground running.

Once we got going it was awesome. Just knowing the type of person that I was going to get to work for, knowing the young guys on this roster when I left were going to be the upperclassmen and the leaders on this team, that was I was going to see out the same guys I saw came in. Just the familiarity, I was really excited about that. I don’t think my first head job could have been laid out any better for me.

BC: Speaking of the players, I wanted to ask you about the spring “draft” you had with them. I’ve seen the video of the draft itself and it looks like it’s going to be entertaining. What’s the backstory on that?

AP: It’s nothing new to college football, but making a team of teams within the program is essentially what we’re doing. We kind of let the players themselves have full ownership of it. We’ve got captains across the entire team picked based on position group and they’re essentially the head coach and GM all in one. We had everything broken down for them in the war room based on each player’s past performance whether it be classroom related, field related or weight room related so that they can essentially have a statistical breakdown of every player in the draft.

The guys had a lot of fun with it. It’s just a good way to allow these captains, per se, to grow into better leaders and that’s really what we want across any team we’re coaching, to have guys that can lead and players that are going to elevate their play based on that. Everything is scored in our program – in the weight room, academically, recovery-wise. Beyond that, people will also compete with their teams once we get to a team competition phase in late February. Twice a week, they’ll be with their teams competing against all the other teams for the duration of the spring.

BC: As we mentioned, you were here in 2014 for an incredibly special season and MSU’s rise to No. 1. What are some of your memories of that season?

AP: From the moment that I stepped on campus here and we started to train the guys, it was my first SEC team, I was just wondering, is this how it is everywhere? The amount of talent that I was seeing in the weight room and on the field, through all the competitions that we did then. Obviously, once the season began, it didn’t take long to see how special we were. I believe it was week four, we were down in Baton Rouge playing, and we were going into halftime up a couple touchdowns against LSU. You’ve never heard 100,000-plus people so quiet in your life. I think it was kind of that moment that it clicked that the team was really special.

I think what set that team apart from many others is the leadership that it had. And it wasn’t just one person, but it was really across the board. A lot of the upperclassmen on that team were phenomenal leaders on and off the field. They backed it up with their play and they backed it up with their preparation, as well. That team was definitely really special, and luckily for me, I got to stay in touch with quite a few of those guys when they made it to the next level. When I was in Arizona, I got to see them whenever we would play their teams, and they were definitely bonds that we’ll keep with us forever.

BC: So, going forward, this is obviously a very important time for a program before spring ball starts. What are some of the things you want to accomplish between now and then with the guys?

AP: We just finished our period of assessing all the players individually, seeing what their strengths and weaknesses are. Our job as a strength staff, as a sports med staff, as a football coaching staff, is to sit at the table and come up with the single best solution for every player on the team so that we can maximize their potential. Doing that allows us to figure out where and how many times we have to break down the program across the board into little individual categories for the players so we’re making sure over these next couple weeks that they’re not just beating a dead horse, but finding out what things we need to do for them to continue to be good at their strengths and what things we need to do to lift up their weaknesses.

A lot of the things that we’re already adopting, that we think are going to benefit the team across the board, are a style of conditioning and speed work and mobility work that we’re doing with them. I think the players as a whole are really enjoying that already. It’s really just getting started. We’re at the base level of that. We plan on continuing to roll that out in spring ball. Once we get into summer training, we’ll take that up again.

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Bulldogs Rally Together For Impressive Taxslayer Victory

Mississippi State took the field Saturday with an interim head coach, a skeleton staff and an opponent everyone expected them to lose to. Louisville had a Heisman winner at quarterback, while State had a true freshman making his first start ever after its usual starting quarterback was hurt in the final game of the regular season. The Bulldogs had injuries, absences, illnesses and more. By the end of the first half, only one of their four captains was even still able to play.

And MSU won, the 2017 Taxslayer Bowl Champions. Not only did they win, but that freshman stole the show on the same field as the winner of college football’s greatest award. The defense without a coordinator played lights out for almost the entire game, racking up four interceptions and six sacks against Bobby Petrino’s vaunted Cardinal offense.

It shouldn’t have happened, and few would have been surprised if it hadn’t, but it happened anyway, largely because those select few also happened to be the ones on the field. It can often sound cheesy, insincere or clichéd, but when MSU beat Louisville 31-27 on Saturday in Jacksonville, the players on the team were making a statement about the truth behind the word: they’re a family.

“There are coaches missing, a few players being hurt, Jamal Peters didn’t play, a couple seniors are hurt,” the winning freshman quarterback Keytaon Thompson listed off the reasons people doubted them. “It takes a family to come together in a situation like this and still fight in a tough game against a Heisman trophy winner in a big game.”

“It’s been a tough time for everyone, a lot of emotions. You’re talking about 120-something guys and everyone is viewing things differently,” interim head coach Greg Knox replied when asked what it was like leading with an interim staff. “Today, that’s what you saw on the field. It was a chance for everyone to breathe a sigh of relief and say, ‘Thank you God for this win.’

“I’ve been here nine years,” he finished. “These guys, I recruited them. I’ve been in their homes. We’re family. We’re a family.”

“I know it means a lot to the team. I know it means a lot to Coach Knox,” sophomore defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons offered as confirmation. “When he first got in front of the team I told Coach Knox, ‘We have your back.’ He said, ‘I need that.’ From that point on, I knew this was going to mean a lot to him.”

“We had to face a lot of adversity, especially throughout the coaching change, and our team stayed focused,” Simmons added. “We stayed together as a team. Like I told the team earlier, the bond we have as a team won’t be broken because of all the changes going on. Like I said, the family is strong and the team was strong to come and finish a bowl game.”

“Back on January 1, when this team was born, we made a commitment to this team and this season. We were going to hold that rope, hold that chain up high,” Taxslayer Bowl MVP Mark McLaurin offered as explanation of the history. “We locked arms and said we’re gonna take the field today and come out with a win.”

“It’s the same way we’ve been having success. Nothing changed. Just hard work and preparation. It doesn’t matter who’s in, what quarterback or what coach. It comes down to us and hard work and preparation,” freshman linebacker Errol Thompson shared. “That was kind of the sense of everybody. We’d come into the weight room and it was go time, everyone knew they needed to lock in no matter what. Everybody understood that from the start. It helped to have that mindset.”

“We’re a family,” Thompson repeated. “Guys knew it was my first start and they wanted me to win. Defense had all the confidence in me and the team. We wanted to go out with a bang.”

And that’s what they did. In the coming days and weeks, the 2018 team will be born and their journey will begin, aided by many who helped make this year so successful. But before that happens, Mississippi State made sure to finish what it started in 2017, and above all, the Bulldogs made sure to do it as a family.

And it wasn’t just the players. It wasn’t just the coaches leaving, the coaches staying or the coaches coming. It was the thousands of fans in the stadium who came to watch their last game. It was athletic director John Cohen cheering them on, and on many occasions coaching them on, from the sideline all afternoon. It was guys like Jay Perry, Brad Peterson, Patrick Austin and Rod Gibson who ensured everything held together. It was the baseball coach, Andy Cannizaro, who flew to Florida on his own dime to watch the team. It was the band, the spirit groups, the equipment managers and athletic trainers. The strength staff, the ticketing staff, the compliance staff and the external staff. It was all who work, cheer and care for the Bulldogs. It was a connection of people with a common goal and an uncommon bond.

Dak Prescott said it first, and these players said it again on Saturday in the most trying of circumstances. You can call it a cliché, but they call it family, and that’s who they play for.

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Fun In The Sun: The MSU Fan’s Guide To Visiting Jacksonville And The Taxslayer Bowl

Days before Mississippi State beat Arkansas in Fayetteville back in November, the coldest and windiest game of the year for the Bulldogs, junior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald said he was hoping for a win for many reasons, but chief among them was the dream of “a warmer bowl game.”

Three weeks later, he got his wish when it was announced his team is headed to Jacksonville, Florida, for the Taxslayer Bowl on December 30. Sunshine, water, food and fun … and that’s just on gameday, thanks to the pool party inside the stadium. Not that Fitzgerald will be able to watch the game from the pool, of course, but anyone else can. More info on that here:

However, the game itself is only four hours, and if you’re making the trip all the way down to Florida over the holidays, you might as well make the most of it and enjoy some extra time in the area. Jacksonville is a fairly spread out city as it is, and when factoring in the nearby beaches, the swath of land in which vacationers will spend their time gets even larger. For that reason, I put together a quick travel guide based on my time there and recommendations from experts to help those who are looking for things to do, places to eat and ways to enjoy the warmth of the Sunshine State.

With the vast amount of hotels, AirBNB’s, beach rentals and the like available in the area, I didn’t list any lodging recommendations. But for those who would like it all taken care of in one neat, easy package, I’d recommend looking at the PrimeSport travel package MSU has available for the Taxslayer Bowl. Check that out here:



Whether it’s an activity for the family, for adults or for the solo traveler, Jacksonville has plenty to offer. Beaches, of course, are a hot spot for travelers, and they have their own section later on. For a more detailed guide with extensive information, links and directions to museums, shows, etc., the Taxslayer Bowl has a helpful listing on its website

The Jacksonville Zoo – What easier way to enjoy the good weather than to stroll through a zoo? From jaguars to giraffes to frogs and birds, the zoo has over 2,000 rare and exotic animals.

Dave and Buster’s, Top Golf – You likely already know what these are, and now you know you can visit them both in Jacksonville. MSU’s football team will actually be making a visit of its own to Top Golf, and it won’t be a surprise if a player or two make their way to Dave and Buster’s. Arcade games, golfing, food – all good things, good for all ages.

Adventure Landing – A good choice for the family, Adventure Landing has locations in Jacksonville proper as well as Jacksonville Beach. They’ve got arcades, laser tag, go karts and mini golf.

The Elbow – The Elbow is Jacksonville’s main entertainment district, where the burgeoning arts scene has flourished, and restaurants, shops and bars with live music line the streets. Some of the food recommendations below can be found here, but honestly, you can wander around and just poke your head inside whatever looks good to you and you’ll be just fine. More information here:

Jacksonville Landing – The home of MSU’s pep rally the night before the game – Friday, December 29 at 6:30 – The Landing is an easy and scenic one-stop choice for a full evening of entertainment. In what amounts to an outdoor mall and food court on the riverfront, the landing has a variety of shops and restaurants to suit most budgets. Pizza, tacos, steaks – whatever you like, you can find it here.



When I travel, this is always the most important and most enjoyable part of my trip. This list comes from a combination of personal experience, online research and recs from locals. For a lengthier list, the Taxslayer Bowl has a full section of its website dedicated to partner restaurants –

Maple Street Biscuit Company – Open for breakfast and lunch Monday-Friday, this is one of Jax’s most popular and highest-rated spots. Sweet or savory, standard or adventurous, the menu is much more than just biscuits. I’d recommend The Sticky Maple – “Flaky biscuit, all natural fried chicken breast, pecan wood smoked bacon all topped with Bissell Family Farm real maple syrup” – but that’s just me. Check out the menu and see what you like

BB’s Restaurant – Better for the adults traveling with more dollars than babies, BB’s is an upscale option that is a regular award-winner and must-visit-list topper. Seafood, salads, sandwiches, soups and pizza lead off the menu, and if you’re staying in town after the game, their New Year’s Eve dinner would be a fine choice.

TacoLu Baja Mexicana – A local staple in a historic building, this is where you’ll find me all week in Jacksonville. It’s a bit off the beaten tourist path, but TacoLu is worth the effort. Excellent Mexican food, Taco Lu has a cheeseburger quesadilla, beef brisket enchiladas and even a filet mignon taco on its menu of a dozen specialty tacos. Check it out.

Singleton’s Seafood Shack – If you’re in the mood for seafood – fresh or fried – with a view of the water, Singleton’s is the place to go. Featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, Singleton’s is worth the drive from the city to the beach.

Metro Diner – Southern, hearty and highly-rated, Metro Diner is where you’ll find Jacksonville’s locals, and with good reason. They serve breakfast all day, but it’s the sandwiches and lunch-and-dinner plates that keep people coming back for more. There’s nothing fancy here, just good food the way we appreciate it in Mississippi.

Al’s Pizza – A local chain of, you guessed it, pizza parlors, Al’s has locations spread throughout Jacksonville. A family-friendly joint, Al’s has regularly been voted Jacksonville’s best pizza and has an enjoyably large menu of options not just limited to pizza.

13 Gypsies – Jacksonville has plenty of international flair among its many restaurants, and 13 Gypsies comes highly recommended as a place for adults to spend an evening in the riverfront area. A Spanish-style tapas restaurants also featuring cured meats and cheeses, 13 Gypsies offers one of the areas most extensive drink lists for adults, as well.

River City Brewing Company – Another option for the riverfront area, River City Brewing features some of the best views of the water and the surrounding area, while also offering a nice selection of food and local craft beverages. The regular menu isn’t overly pricy anyway, but the happy hour deals on the brew house lounge and deck make for an even more enjoyable and cost-effective way to spend an afternoon of snacking and enjoying the sunshine.



Right, here we are, arriving at perhaps the best thing about winter in Florida – you can go to the beach. Beyond sunbathing and swimming, the area beaches have surfing, kayaking, kiteboarding, paddleboarding and fishing among the many available activities, so don’t feel pressured to just spend your time building sandcastles. For links to any of those activities – as well as several more – I will once again direct you to a quite convenient listing on the Taxslayer Bowl website. Shout out to whoever put that site together. You’ve been helpful.

In fact, I am going to borrow even more extensively from them and share their breakdown of the four areas to choose from in Jacksonville’s 20 miles of white sand beaches.

“Farthest north, the quaint, historic village of Mayport is home to casino boats and seafood restaurants, offering their freshest catch. Head over to Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park, providing what many consider to be Jacksonville’s favorite biking and hiking trails. The park also offers camping and spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean and surrounding wilderness.

South of Mayport are the communities of Atlantic Beach and Neptune Beach. The intersection of Atlantic Beach and Neptune Beach is a hot spot that seems to keep getting hotter. Enjoy casual and upscale dining, diverse shopping options and most of all a very happening nightlife scene.

Rounding things out is Jacksonville Beach. The Sea Walk Pavilion, an outdoor amphitheater, hosts concerts, movies and festivals year round. Get a tan, catch a wave on a boogie board or have a picnic on the beach. Nightlife is also hot in Jacksonville Beach with oceanfront clubs and intimate pubs. For a good, wholesome time, try water slides, go-cart racing and laser tag at nearby Adventure Landing.”



So, you drove or flew or sailed all this way, and while you’re in Jacksonville, you also want to check out some of the nearby cities. There are plenty more options than just these, but here are three of my favorites, all within two hours of your hotel in Jacksonville.

St. Augustine – The oldest city in the United States, St. Augustine is an easy 45-minute drive from Jacksonville. The scenic city is slow, historic and charmingly upscale with a multitude of museums, a wealth of fine dining, and also an excellent outlet mall where those on a budget like me can look like a rich person from two years ago.

Orlando – Yeah, I know – duh. But if you’ve never been, it’s only a two-hour drive to reach the No. 1 place on planet earth for theme parks. Disney World and Universal Studios – now featuring two massive areas dedicated to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – are the headliners in a city that is packed to the gills not just with tourists, but ways for those tourists to have an absolute ball. Pro-tip learned from a college internship working at Disney World: the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is one of the busiest weeks of the years for all parks. They’re prepared for it, of course, but I offer two recommendations here. 1. Arrive early if you’re going these days. 2. If you can swing it, wait and make your trip after New Year’s Day when the massive crowds have gone back home and the short lines are just you, a few other smart people and the South Americans visiting during their summer break.

Savannah, Georgia – Most people don’t seem to realize how far south this very southern city is, but just a two-hour straight shot north from Jacksonville is one of my favorite cities. Savannah is considered the most haunted city in America, but beyond that, its historic downtown is also one of the most walkable and its culinary scene is quietly becoming one of the most respected in southern cuisine. You’ll enjoy yourself just fine if you want to go to Paula Deen’s restaurant with the other tourists, but locals know that the best family-style southern dining is at Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room, where you better arrive early to get in line. My highest of recommendations also go to the funky Treylor Park on Bay Street and to The Grey, the James Beard Award-winning upscale restaurant in a converted old Greyhound Bus station.

The first planned city in America, Savannah’s two-dozen squares are lined with live oaks dripping in Spanish moss, and with the Savannah College of Art and Design spread throughout the historic district, the beauty and charm are not just limited to the plants and parks. If you go to Savannah – and really, I hope that you do – tweet or email me and I can share some more good spots.

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Q&A With New Pass Game Coordinator And QB Coach Andrew Breiner

On Wednesday morning, Mississippi State football announced the hiring of Andrew Breiner as the pass game coordinator and quarterbacks coach for new head coach Joe Moorhead. Breiner and Moorhead have a long history together, having worked together initially for three years at UConn, then from 2012-15 at Fordham with Moorhead as the head coach and Breiner as his offensive coordinator.

Breiner spent the last two seasons as the head coach at Fordham after Moorhead was named the offensive coordinator at Penn State, and now the two will be reunited in Starkville. HailStateBEAT reporter Bob Carskadon caught up with Breiner to talk about Moorhead, MSU and the new job. The full transcript of the question and answer session can be found below.


Bob Carskadon: You’ve worked with Moorhead a lot in the past, so I feel like it’s safe to say you wouldn’t join his staff at Mississippi State if you didn’t think good things were possible. What makes him a good head coach?

Andrew Breiner: I mean, I’ve seen with my own two eyes the way he motivates the young men on the team, the way he rallies them together, and the way he instills confidence because of the way that things are done and that they know they’re prepared going into each and every game. The Xs and Os – Joe’s reputation is out there as an offensive mind, but what really makes him a great coach is his ability to lead by motivating, inspiring, rallying together and instilling confidence.

BC: You mention those Xs and Os – you were a part of creating that innovative offense years ago at UConn and Fordham. In those early days, what was the process like as far as tweaking, experimenting and learning? What kind of advancements have you made since then?

AB: It was a long process. I still remember when Joe got to UConn. We got there, I think, the same day, and his family was still in Akron and I was single at the time, so we were spending long hours just putting install tapes together and playbooks together and learning the base of it then. We got to Fordham and had a chance with Joe as the head coach having the ultimate say to make some modifications and changes. What we’ve always done is spend time after each season watching offenses and taking ideas that we think fit. It’s been a consistent evolution. No two years are going to be the exact same, but it’s never going to depart too far from its foundation either.

BC: For your role as pass game coordinator, what are some of the necessary skills and traits for quarterbacks and receivers in this style of passing game?

AB: The quarterback position, we’re looking for a guy that is equally a threat as a passer and also as an athlete with the ball in his hands. Decision making is No. 1 for the quarterback position, guys that we can teach the system to and have them make the right decision on a consistent basis. The wide receiver position, we have a few different positions and they all have their kind of unique skillset, but we’re looking for guys that, obviously, are fast, that have the ability to change direction and run precise routes, and most importantly make plays when the ball is in the air.

BC: Along those lines, I know you haven’t even had a practice or anything at MSU, but from what you’re aware of and have been able to learn, what do you see in the roster you have and what possibilities do you see with some of the individual talent?

AB: At this point, the only position I have any familiarity with is the quarterbacks. I have not gotten a chance to really dive into the receivers yet. I’ve watched a little bit of Nick [Fitzgerald’s] tape and think he’s a guy that has the skillset that we’re looking for. I look forward to working with him and developing him in his senior year. I actually just happened to be watching the Egg Bowl and watched KT [Keytaon Thompson] in that game, who you can see has the skills and the tools that are very similar to the quarterbacks we’ve had in this offense who have had a lot of success.

Obviously, both guys are going to have to go through a learning curve and we’ll work incredibly hard with them to get them up to speed. Once you get that done, you can let their physical talents shine through. It’s just a matter of getting them comfortable within the system.

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The Science Behind Weatherspoon, William And MSU’s Buzzer-Beating Shots

For over 40 years, my dad has been teaching psychology at Mississippi State. Dr. Thomas Carskadon’s section of General Psychology can be one of the toughest to get into, despite the fact that it’s held in a 300-person auditorium in Dorman Hall. “Dr. C” is appreciated for his entertaining stories that always, in some way, relate to the subject matter, and I got to have the experience of taking his class when I was a freshman at MSU.

However, despite my knowledge that he knows what he’s talking about after decades of teaching, publishing and researching psychological matters, I disagreed with him on one particular subject of his lectures. As you might imagine given the fact that I’m sharing this story in this venue, it was an issue with sports.

Psychology tells us that athletes being on a hot streak is a myth. Or perhaps a better way to explain it would be to call it a mirage. It’s not what we think it is. In basketball, for example, someone making a long streak of consecutive shots doesn’t mean that player is “in the zone,” or however you’d like to describe such a scenario. Sure, those streaks happen, but over time, shooting is – supposedly – no different than flipping a coin.

Whether a quarter has landed on tails 10 times in a row or one, there is still a 50 percent chance that the next flip will land on tails, no better and no worse. It’s always a 50-50 shot. The same applies for a basketball player: if they’re, say, a 45 percent shooter from the field, then there is always a 45 percent chance the shot will go in. Streaks are going to happen naturally, but over time, they’re meaningless beyond a means for the numbers to work themselves out, despite what it feels like when we watch.

Well, I disagree, and I told him as much in class that day – in a respectful manner, of course – but we haven’t discussed it since. For the first time in years, I revisited the subject with him on Sunday when MSU junior guard Quinndary Weatherspoon made his second game-winning buzzer beater in three games and the third of his career at MSU, having drilled his first one as a freshman to beat Vanderbilt at Humphrey Coliseum.

Making shots like that is as difficult as it is rare, so I wondered if the same principle applied. I texted my dad after the game to see what psychology and odds had to say on the subject, expecting another answer that would completely diffuse the narrative of there being something special or impressive about Weatherspoon’s feats.

I was wrong.

The first message: “The greater the presence of others, crowd, noise, and the resulting stress, the more the most probable response is intensified. Thus, a mediocre person will get worse, but a true star will get better.”

And the second: “Actually, the bridge word is really arousal: The crowd, the stress, etc., increase arousal in the player, and it is arousal that intensifies the most probable response, i.e. super play by super stars, but diminished play by lesser players.”


So there we have it: science proves that Quinndary Weatherspoon is a star.

After checking with the psychology expert, I asked the player himself. When you’re in those moments, does your blood pump extra hard? Is your mind racing? In short, can you feel the stress and gravity of the situation? Again, I didn’t get the answer I expected.

“It feels normal,” Weatherspoon answered, “like there are 20 minutes on the clock. I’m just trying to get a shot up and it’s falling.”

Psychology was right. The stress has no effect on Weatherspoon except to help him even more easily do what he so naturally does well: make shots.

“I can remember four times in my 22 years as a head coach that we won a game at the buzzer [before this season]. Now it’s six, and he has three of them, so it’s amazing,” MSU head coach Ben Howland said. “He’s just a player. He really makes plays. He’s a player and he makes plays.”

Perhaps as impressive as the made shot was Weatherspoon’s awareness in the short time leading up to it. When he got the steal near the sideline on Dayton’s side of the court, time was already almost up. Most players would likely have taken a few long strides and thrown up a low-percentage three-pointer when they saw the game clock dip down to one second left. Weatherspoon kept going, though, much to Howland’s delight.

In those 22 years of coaching that he mentioned, Howland has learned a lot, and with the game tied, he knew his team only needed one point. Taking a three-pointer would not only have been excessive, but it would have cut the possible ways to score in half. By driving all the way to the basket and taking a contested shot, there was the hope of A) Making the shot and B) Getting fouled and earning another opportunity to score on a free throw in case the shot didn’t go in.

In Weatherspoon’s case, of course, option No. 2 never mattered, but the fact that he still made the right call to drive all the way to the basket with, almost literally, no time to think about it, only underlines the moral of the story: Quinndary Weatherspoon is a star.

Those who follow MSU sports know well that shots like these, despite how uncommon they are elsewhere, have become something of a regular occurrence lately. After all, it was just this spring that then-junior point guard Morgan William made the biggest play in the school’s athletic history when she hit The Shot, a buzzer-beater to upset No. 1 UConn and advance MSU’s women’s basketball team to the National Championship. Following such a spectacular feat, even the opposing coach had to admit that what he had just seen was special.

“That’s one of the toughest shots to make, from that distance, under that kind of pressure,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said that day.

But William, as psychology could have told us, only excels under pressure. Just the weekend before, William had racked up 41 points and seven steals in an overtime win against the heavily-favored Baylor Bears in the Elite Eight, just one day removed from the three-year anniversary of her father’s death. That William, like Weatherspoon, first made her mark as a freshman when she hit a buzzer-beater to defeat rival Ole Miss should be no surprise.

These Bulldogs have always been stars. They’ve hit the shots to prove it.

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