February 16, 2018 10:41:19 AM
Until Thursday evening, there were many things you could call Mississippi State's women's basketball team -- and one thing you could not.
Heading into Thursday's game at Vanderbilt, you could refer to the Bulldogs as tough, talented, versatile, resilient, successful.
What you could not call them was SEC Champions.
Now you can. With Thursday's dominating 95-50 win over Vanderbilt, the Bulldogs have assured themselves of no worse than a tie for the conference title. With three games to play, the undefeated, second-ranked Bulldogs are almost certain to claim sole possession of that title. Yet Thursday remains a watershed moment, not only for the women's basketball program, but for the entire women's athletic program at MSU.
It marks not only the MSU women's first conference championship in basketball, but the first championship ever won by a Bulldogs women's athletic team in any sport.
That the Bulldogs could achieve this distinction was not a foregone conclusion after a 2016-17 season in which MSU recorded the biggest upset in women's basketball history -- snapping UConn's record 111-game winning streak in the semifinals of the NCAA and ultimately finishing as national runner-up to South Carolina.
That season, MSU had not one, but two chances to claim that elusive SEC Championship. Late season losses to Kentucky and Tennessee denied the Bulldogs that much-coveted honor.
The Bulldogs lost four seniors from that team, so the prospects of the 2017-18 team doing what the 2016-17 team could not were far from certain.
But last year's role players have emerged as stars. This year's team is, in most positions, deeper, more versatile and better offensively than last year's team while still maintaining its reputation as one of the toughest defensive teams in the nation. The Bulldogs rank among the 10 best defenses and offenses in the nation. The Bulldogs' average margin of victory this season is 28.7 points.
That combination has resulted in an SEC title while sustaining hopes for the biggest prize of all, a national championship. MSU and top-ranked UConn are the nation's only unbeaten teams.
The SEC title is something that all who support MSU can take pride in, including the Bulldogs' other women's sports.
Since the 1970s, when Title IX created more opportunities for women to participate in college athletics, women's sports at MSU and other colleges has grown from something to be grudgingly tolerated to widely-embraced. MSU's basketball team continues to shatter attendance records, selling out games. That was unthinkable even a few years ago.
The SEC title should serve as an inspiration to the university's other women's teams.
The university's commitment to women's athletics -- in the form of excellent facilities, budgets and hiring quality coaches -- opens the door for those programs to achieve what the women's basketball team achieved Thursday evening.
Thursday evening, the MSU women's team won an SEC title.
There will be more to come, perhaps in other women's sports as well.
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