September 24, 2013 11:40:11 PM
LaToya Thomas and Tan White have become synonymous with Mississippi State women's basketball.
Hailing from Greenville and Tupelo, Thomas and White played integral leading roles in some of the program's best seasons.
But as good as Thomas, the program's all-time leading scorer, and White, MSU's No. 2 scorer, were there were other players who served in valuable complementary roles and helped make that success possible. Thomas and White may have had more memorable moments, but Nitra Perry, Angela Harris, and Jennifer Fambrough provided second and third options and played defense and directed the offense, roles every program needs filled if it is going to win a championship.
In 2000, Harris and Perry were seniors, while Fambrough was a sophomore and Thomas was a freshman on a MSU team that nearly upset Tennessee to win the Southeastern Conference tournament title in Chattanooga, Tenn. That has been the closest MSU has come to winning a SEC crown in women's basketball.
More than 13 years later, the announcement Monday that Scott Central High School standout Victoria Vivians will play basketball at MSU conjures images of Thomas' deft scoring touch and White's lightning-quick thievery. Ranked as the No. 27 and the No. 40 recruit in the Class of 2014 by two of the nation's top recruiting services, Vivians has the potential to be a program-changer for second-year MSU coach Vic Schaefer. While other recent top Mississippi recruits like Tiaria Griffin and Krista Donald (Georgia), Rachel Hollivay and April Sykes (Rutgers), and LaSondra Barrett (LSU) opted to leave the state, Vivians' decision to remain in Mississippi could change that trend.
The operative word is could.
For all of their individual brilliance, MSU's teams with Thomas and White never advanced past the second round of the NCAA tournament. The team's best seasons came in 1999-2000 and 2002-03, when it won 24 games and lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament both seasons. In 2000, Harris and Perry were solid backcourt players, while Fambrough provided outside shooting and rebounding to complement Thomas' all-around game.
When White arrived at MSU for the 2001-02 season, Thomas was a junior. The duo teamed to lead the program to 19 victories and a second-round appearance in the NCAA tournament. The program reached the same point the following season before it said goodbye to Thomas, who poured in 2,981 points.
Left to lead the show, White succeeded in pushing MSU to the postseason in her senior year, where it lost to Arkansas State in the first round of the Women's National Invitation Tournament.
It isn't until the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons that MSU reached those heights again. In 2009, MSU again reached the second round of the NCAA tournament, where it lost to Ohio State. The following year, MSU beat Middle Tennessee State and Ohio State to reach the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tournament for the first time. MSU accomplished that feat because of the sum of its parts. While it didn't have a four-time Kodak All-American like Thomas, it did have a gunslinger (Alexis Rack), a defensive whiz (Armelie Lumanu), a guard in a center's body (Chanel Mokango) and a host of complementary pieces (Tysheka Grimes, Mary Kathryn Govero, Diamber Johnson) that allowed coach Sharon Fanning-Otis to achieve a career highlight.
Vivians' decision could help Schaefer return MSU to those heights. Nicknamed "The Secretary of Defense," Schaefer knows what it takes to assemble a national champion. He and associate head coach Johnnie Harris were member of Gary Blair's coaching staff when Texas A&M won the national title in 2011. Their hard work in recruiting helped transform a program that won only nine games in Blair's first season in 2003-04 into one of the nation's elite programs.
Schaefer, Harris and assistant coaches Aqua Franklin and Brittany Hudson have put MSU on that path. Their first recruiting class included Kiki Patterson, of Columbus High, and Jazmine Spears, of New Albany, who were two of the state's top players in the Class of 2013. Although Spears failed to qualify academically and is at Trinity Valley (Texas) Community College, MSU went 7-for-7 in getting its recruits and was rewarded with a recruiting class ranked No. 35 in the nation according to Dan Olson's Collegiate Girls Basketball Report. That class was ranked so high because it included height, athleticism, defensive prowess, and toughness.
Schaefer will need to land even more of that in the Class of 2014 to go with Vivians, Morgan William, a point guard from Birmingham, Ala., and Blair Schaefer, a senior guard at Starkville High. Blair is Vic Schaefer's daughter. If he thought his job was difficult before Vivians' decision, it became even more challenging once the 6-foot guard/forward opted to become a Bulldog. Now that one elite player has signed on and shows she believes in Schaefer and his vision for the program, his mission is to convince other top players in Mississippi to stay home. He also needs to push the envelope and bring players from the Southeast and the rest of the country to stack elite class on top of elite class.
It can be done. With Mize Pavilion, MSU's facilities are on par with the rest of the SEC and the best program's in the nation. It already is in arguably the best conference in the country, so what else could a player want?
That answer is easy: More players. In landing Vivians, MSU showed it could compete with some of the nation's top programs and win the battle. Here's hoping Schaefer and his coaching staff can win plenty more of those recruiting matchups to help give new Bulldogs like Patterson and Breanna Richardson and future Bulldogs like Vivians an even deeper array of weapons than Thomas and White had.
Adam Minichino is sports editor at The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.