Victoria Vivians and the No. 2 Mississippi State women's basketball team will play host to Florida at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Humphrey Coliseum. Photo by: Chris McDill/Special to The Dispatch Buy this photo.
January 24, 2018 9:36:58 AM
It's down to five.
Through 20 games, the Mississippi State women's basketball team has displayed all of the qualities to make another run at a national title. The Bulldogs have done it in front of hostile crowds on the road, small crowds in Mexico and in Las Vegas, and before packed houses at Humphrey Coliseum.
The challenge in the next two months rests with the MSU fans. How many times will fans of the Bulldogs pack the Hump to see what likely will go down as the most accomplished class in history?
The only remaining guarantees MSU fans have to watch seniors Victoria Vivians, Morgan William, Blair Schaefer, and Roshunda Johnson will be at home games against Florida (7:30 p.m. Thursday), South Carolina (6 p.m., Feb. 6), Kentucky (1 p.m., Feb. 11), Texas A&M (1 or 4 p.m., Feb. 18), and Auburn (7 p.m., Feb. 22).
MSU also has five road games remaining, including a game at 1 p.m. Sunday at Ole Miss. As fans of the Bulldogs have shown through the last few years, they are more than willing to hop in the car or in a bus, as evidenced by a healthy throng of maroon-clad fans inside Thompson-Boling Arena on Sunday in Knoxville, Tennessee, to travel to see their team play.
But wouldn't it be nice for a group of players that has made so much history receive an unprecedented show of support in its final home games?
MSU enters the home stretch ranked a program-high No. 2 in The Associated Press and the USA Today Coaches Poll. The Bulldogs have matched the program-record 20-0 start of the 2016-17 team. At 20-0 and 6-0 in the Southeastern Conference, MSU is one of only two undefeated teams (Connecticut) in Division I women's basketball. The Bulldogs also are the only unbeaten team in the SEC.
All of that suggests MSU is a lock to wrap up at least a top-four seed for the NCAA tournament, which would secure a chance to play the first and second rounds at the Hump.
MSU coach Vic Schaefer would caution you not to look that far ahead. As any coach knows, plenty of things can happen to from Jan. 24 to the start of March Madness, so Schaefer's only concern today is coming up with the best game plan to beat Florida.
The challenge for MSU's fans will be to create the best possible atmosphere in the Hump to give the Bulldogs the best chance to win the program's first SEC regular-season title. The first opportunity will come Thursday night, when MSU will hold its "We Back Pat" game in honor of former longtime Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt. This is the seventh-consecutive year the SEC and its 14 schools are supporting the initiative to raise awareness and recognition of The Pat Summitt Foundation and its fight against Alzheimer's disease.
In addition to honoring the memory of Summitt, MSU will recognize Vivians on her Senior Night. The Bulldogs have tried something new this season where they have held special nights for their seniors during regular-season home games. On Thursday, fans who wear a crown can get a free ticket to the game.
Given Vivians is from Carthage and has plenty of friends and family in the area, there are bound to be plenty of MSU fans wearing special headgear Thursday night. The hope is there will be enough fans to pack the Hump and eclipse the season-high crowd of 9,010 that saw MSU beat Alabama in Jan. 14. That crowd ranks third all-time in program history.
With two wins to go to match the program-record total of 111 victories set last season by the senior class of Ketara Chapel, Dominique Dillingham, Chinwe Okorie, and Breanna Richardson, there won't be many more opportunities to see Vivians, William, Schaefer, and Johnson in the Hump. It would be a fitting tribute to everything they have done to elevate the women's basketball program if MSU fans packed the Hump and sent them out with five crowds of 10,000-plus.
MSU has eclipsed that mark only twice -- last season in a loss to Tennessee and in 2016 in a loss to South Carolina. The crowd of 10,626 for the game against South Carolina even surpassed the listed capacity of Humphrey Coliseum (10,500), so you might be able to find a seat if the fire marshal isn't looking.
Don't just circle Feb. 5 on your calendar and make plans to attend the game against South Carolina. The other four will be just as entertaining because the 2017-18 Bulldogs share the basketball and play to a strength of five rather than a power of one or two. The Bulldogs have climbed the national polls thanks to a high-scoring offense that leads the SEC in scoring (85.6 points per game) and is second in the league in field goal shooting percentage (48.1). Junior center Teaira McCowan, who has 15 double-doubles, and Vivians are third and fourth in the SEC in scoring at 20.5 and 19.5 ppg., respectively. William leads the league in assist-to-turnover ratio (4.1). Schafer (second) and Johnson (eighth) are ranked in the top 10 in 3-point field goals made.
There are plenty of reasons to like this team. The defense MSU delivered Sunday against Tennessee even had coach Schaefer beaming about the Bulldogs' toughness and ability to hold the Lady Vols to a season-low point total. There should be more efforts like that coming, so wouldn't it be great to put Suzy Merchant's quote to the test? If you recall, the Michigan State women's basketball coach said the Hump is a place "where 7,000 sounds like 70,000." That home-court edge (crowd of 7,094) played a key role in MSU's 74-72 victory against Michigan State that helped it advance to its second Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.
How loud can MSU fans make the Hump if they pack it? Don't wait until the final regular-season game to give four seniors a rousing send-off. The challenge for MSU fans is to pack the Hump the rest of the season and make all of the banners that hang from the rafters shake in anticipation of another coming storm.
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. You can reach him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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