March 14, 2014 11:11:57 AM
Vic Schaefer has next.
That should be a welcoming thought for Victoria Vivians. As much as the Mississippi State women's basketball coach has earned his reputation as "Secretary of Defense," he likely won't sick multiple defenders on Vivians when she arrives in Starkville later this year to begin her career as a Bulldog.
Facing one defender will be a novel concept for Vivians, who spent nearly all of high school career being hounded, chased, and shadowed by two or three opponents. Most of the time, the strategy didn't work. In 2011 and 2013, Vivians played integral roles in leading the Scott Central High School girls basketball team to Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 2A state titles. On Thursday, though, H.W Byers had more than enough weapons on offense and used a multi-player defense to prevent Vivians from taking over the game in a 69-54 victory in the Class 2A title game at Mississippi Coliseum.
With Schaefer and MSU associate head coach Johnnie Harris and assistant coaches Aqua Franklin and Brittany Hudson looking on, Vivians scored a game-high 43 points, grabbed 18 rebounds, and had three steals. While Vivians was 13 of 27 from the field and 17 of 21 from the free throw line, Scott Central (28-7) couldn't overcome the balanced scoring of H.W. Byers (25-8), which placed four players in double figures to win its fourth-straight state championship, and sixth in the past seven years. The last three titles came in Class 1A. The first two in 2008 and 2009 were in 2A. Abria Gulledge led the Lady Lions with 20 points, while Richenda Crutcher had 15 and Miracle Duncan added 13 and Laniqua Collins had 12.
But none of those players had the expectations of thousands of fans on their shoulders. With each 40- or 50- or even 60-point game, the buzz surrounding Vivians grew louder. The Scott Central fans showed their support by packing nearly all of the lower bowl of Mississippi Coliseum on the side opposite the team benches. Even many of the H.W. Byers fans clad in fluorescent lemon-lime colored shirts were anxious to see if Vivians was going to have a memorable game, one worthy of YouTube highlights that Callaway High boys standout Malik Newman has delivered many times this season.
Collins and Jequira Thompson spent most of the afternoon as the primary defenders of Vivians. Typically, another Lady Lion joined in the hunt for Vivians as she moved off screens on the baseline and into the lane in an attempt to find open space to create shots for herself or for her teammates. Even though Vivians went 0 of 5 from 3-point range, she showed the ability to get her shot off quickly and to manufacture offense.
Vivians, who earlier in the day was named the state's Gatorade Girls Basketball Player of the year, didn't stop attacking and took the basketball aggressively to the rim. She also showed a willingness to mix it up in the paint and to rebound. Her final point total of 5,745 in five seasons is the most in Mississippi high school basketball history (boys or girls). She finished the season with a 46.2 points per game average (another state record), which eclipsed her 39.7 ppg average last season. She also passed former Myrtle High standout William Earl Berry for most points in a season (1,617).
The National Federation of High Schools counts only points from ninth-12 grade, so Vivians finished her career as the nation's second all-time leading scorer with 5,129 points.
With gaudy numbers like those, some fans believe Vivians' scoring success is based on the fact she was the best player on teams that didn't have a lot of other weapons. While this season's Scott Central team might not have any players move on to play at the highest level of Division I, coach Chad Harrison's squad still won 28 games and had capable ballhandlers and perimeter shooters and enough size to hold its own. The difference is Vivians plays at another level. She does everything quickly and with a purpose, save for play defense with the same intensity on every possession. In one sequence Thursday, Vivians lost a hairband and tried to put it back on while H.W. Byers ran a set for the player Vivians was guarding. Instead of trying to get out and guard the shooter, Vivians stayed in the lane while the player hit a trey. Harrison immediately called timeout and challenged Vivians to do better.
Challenges like that are the ones Vivians will have to embrace at the next level. Schaefer won't accept players who can score on one end and can't defend on the other. That's not to say Vivians won't be able to excel as a defender because trying to avoid two and three players for 32 minutes is a taxing exercise, so it's natural if a player has lapses on defense. At MSU, though, Vivians will be another talented piece to the puzzle who plays at another level. Bulldog fans have seen that style of play in flashes this season from players like Savannah Carter, who throws her body on the court with abandon; Dominique Dillingham, who takes charges without hesitation; Breanna Richardson, who drives to the basket with authority; and Martha Alwal, who has embraced all 6-foot-4 of her game and has grown into a player capable of scoring 20 points and grabbing 20 rebounds in a game.
Rest assured, Vivians is a program-changer. She has all of the game of former MSU greats LaToya Thomas and Tan White. She can shoot from 3-poinr range and she can score on the block. She also is physically strong enough and quick enough to hold up to the pounding in the SEC. She also likely will have the luxury of having a more talented cast surrounding her. The exciting part is Vivians isn't going to use a talented cast as an excuse not to score 40 points a game. She likely won't have to, but Vivians is going to bring the same energy and passion every night that will dare her teammates not to play up to her level.
That attitude will be on display next week. Earlier Thursday, the Mississippi Association of Coaches and the Alabama High School Athletic Association announced the rosters for the Mississippi/Alabama All Star Basketball Games on Friday, March 21, at the Lee E. Williams Athletics & Assembly Center on the campus of Jackson State University. The 24th annual girls game will tip off at 5 p.m. Vivians will join Blair Schaefer, the daughter of Vic Schaefer and her future teammate at MSU, on the Mississippi squad that will go against Morgan William, another MSU commitment, and the Alabama team.
After the loss to H.W. Byers, Vivians said she was "disappointed" but that "better days" are ahead. She said she will attend summer school at MSU later this year to help prepare her for her transition to college. Harrison agrees Vivians is capable of great things at MSU even though he said he didn't know how Vivians handled all of the expectations every game and still delivered.
"I am proud I got to coach the best player that has ever been," Harrison said. "It has been an amazing ride, and I got to watch some amazing stuff on a daily basis. I assure you, I am the most blessed coach in the world."
Vivians shrugged off the expectations that accompanied her every game, saying she had gotten used to being a go-to player who needed to deliver every game. Will she have that same weight on her at MSU? That thought didn't seem to concern her, just as it didn't stop her from being an unstoppable force and scoring possibly the quietest 43 points in school history.
"I am going to try to be a leader," Vivians said. "I think it shouldn't be because we are going to have several good players around me, so we are going to have to come together and play as a team."
Next stop, MSU.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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