March 17, 2014 11:23:04 PM
The Mississippi State women's basketball team will return to the postseason to face a familiar opponent.
This time, the game will count.
MSU learned late Monday night it will play host to Tulane out of Conference USA in the first round of the Women's National Invitation Tournament Thursday at Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville. A time for the game will be announced today.
"We're excited about playing at home," said MSU coach Vic Schaefer, whose program will make its seventh appearance in the event. "We want to give our seniors one more chance to play at home. We appreciate our administration stepping up and giving us an opportunity."
MSU (19-13) was one of three teams from the Southeastern Conference to receive a bid to the 64-team field. Auburn received the SEC's automatic bid as a result of being the highest remaining seeded team from the SEC that didn't earn a bid to the NCAA tournament. Auburn will play host to Furman on Thursday, while Missouri will play Thursday at Creighton.
MSU has faced Tulane the past two years in closed-door scrimmages in October. Schaefer didn't mince words when he said Tulane "beat our butt both times." He said the result in 2012-13, his first year as head coach of the program, was "embarrassing." The result this season was a little more competitive.
"They are well coached and are a team that year in and year out is in the postseason," Schaefer said Monday night from his office at Mize Pavilion. "We are getting the film now and we will be ready for practice tomorrow at 1 o'clock."
Junior guard Danielle Blagg leads Tulane (20-10) in scoring at 12.1 points per game. Junior forward Tiffany Dale is second on the team in scoring (12.0) and leads the team in rebounding (8.2). Junior guard Jamie Kaplan is the team's third double-digit scorer (11.5 ppg.).
The Green Wave and the Bulldogs have plenty of common opponents. MSU and Tulane have victories against Louisiana-Lafayette, New Orleans, Southeastern Louisiana, and Southern Miss. Tulane lost its second meeting to USM and, like MSU, also lost to Middle Tennessee State, the regular-season and C-USA tournament champion. Tulane also has lost to Ole Miss and Auburn.
Tulane finished fourth in C-USA at 11-5. Florida International upset Tulane 69-55 in the quarterfinals of the C-USA tournament.
Tulane is making its fifth-straight postseason appearance. Last season, it beat Sam Houston State and Arkansas before losing to Auburn in the Sweet 16 of the WNIT. It has played in the WNIT the past four seasons. Tulane lost to Georgia in the first round of the NCAA tournament in 2010.
Schaefer said he and his coaches will follow a schedule that is similar to what they face during the regular season. He said Monday typically is an off day, which leaves the team Tuesday and Wednesday to prepare for the next game. Schaefer said everyone will be focused on Tulane and won't look ahead to a potential second-round WNIT matchup against the winner of the Lamar-Southern Miss game because he knows Tulane is a talented team.
"We are playing a team that has beaten us two years in a row in the preseason, and beaten us handily," Schaefer said. "We're going to have our hands full. At the same time, we're a different team that we were late in October, and certainly we're a different team than we were a year ago."
MSU virtually assured itself a postseason bid with a 7-0 start that blossomed into a 13-1 non-conference record. The start included victories against James Madison, which advanced to the NCAA tournament by earning the automatic bid from the Colonial Athletic Association, and Grand Canyon, out of the Western Athletic Conference, in the Gulf Coast Showcase in late November.
MSU also had a 71-61 victory against Conference USA tournament runner-up Southern Miss on Dec. 14 in Starkville among its quality victories.
Overtime losses at Ole Miss, at Alabama, and at home to Kentucky likely ended MSU's chances of earning a bid to the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 2009-10 season. That season, MSU advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history. Three-straight losing seasons followed, including a 13-17 record last season in Schaefer's first season as head coach following coach Sharon Fanning-Otis.
Eight SEC teams earned bids to the NCAA tournament. Regular-season champion South Carolina and tournament champion Tennessee earned No. 1 seeds. Kentucky, Texas A&M, Georgia, Vanderbilt, LSU, and Florida were the other teams to earn bids. Vanderbilt and Florida were among the last four teams to earn at-large invitations.
MSU went 2-8 vs. those eight teams. It was part of a second-consecutive 5-11 regular-season finish in the league. MSU then beat Missouri and lost to Florida in the SEC tournament at The Arena at Gwinnett Center In Duluth, Ga. It finished with a Ratings Percentage Index of 85 and a Strength of Schedule of 69, according to RealTime RPI.com. Tulane has a RPI of 102 and a SOS of 115.
Arkansas likely would have secured a bid to the WNIT, but it fired coach Tom Collen after a loss to Ole Miss in the SEC tournament. Ole Miss and Alabama had losing records and weren't eligible for WNIT bids.
MSU last appeared in the WNIT in 2008, when it lost to Southern Miss 62-61 in Hattiesburg. It last played host to a WNIT game in 2007, when it beat Tulane 79-72 in the second round. MSU then lost to Western Kentucky 56-53 in the third round in Bowling Green, Ky.
MSU has a 4-7 record in six trips to the WNIT.
Last season, Drexel won six-straight games, including victories against Florida and Auburn, en route to the WNIT title. The tournament offers bids to automatic qualifiers from each of the nation's 32 conference and 32 at-large bids.
n NOTE: MSU will host a luncheon on Wednesday at Mize Pavilion in advance of its WNIT game. Doors will open at 11:15 a.m. Lunch will begin at 11:30 a.m. The cost is $12. Those interested in attending should RSVP by calling 662-325-0198, or by emailing email@example.com.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.