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Minichino column: MSU women look to continue historic march at Vanderbilt


Adam Minichino





It says something about Vic Schaefer when the Mississippi State women's basketball coach claims to have shown more emotion at times than his players. 


There's no denying Schaefer is right on at least one occasion. Those who saw Schaefer's reaction after South Carolina coach Dawn Staley called a 30-second timeout with 6 minutes, 34 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter will undoubtedly agree. The timeout came after Victoria Vivians and Blair Schaefer hit back-to-back 3-pointers to help MSU regain the momentum en route to a 67-53 victory before a Humphrey Coliseum record crowd of 10,794. 


The reaction of Schaefer epitomized what MSU has been about -- passion, tenacity, will -- the last six seasons. That's why someone has to find a picture of that moment and send it to Schaefer so it can be immortalized on the walls of the Hump, right along with the memories of the men's and women's most successful teams. 


The 2017-18 MSU women's team could find itself on the walls, too. If you've been listening closely, the whispers already are starting: Can MSU stay undefeated? Will Victoria Vivians or Teaira McCowan be named Southeastern Conference Player of the Year? Will the NCAA tournament selection committee send MSU to the Spokane Regional or will it send the Bulldogs to the Kansas City Regional?  


There's been another question, too: Can MSU beat Connecticut? 


A year ago, that question wasn't asked very often. It was taken as a given by many in the national media that the four-time reigning national champion Connecticut would beat MSU on its way to another title and wins 112 and 113 in a row. 


We all know how that ended.  


Morgan William's dagger ended the NCAA's longest winning streak and made everyone sit up and take notice of the team from Starkville. That MSU couldn't complete the title journey speaks to the strength and talent of the 2016-17 South Carolina team and to the arduous road MSU took to get there. 


It's safe to say that run has made the 2017-18 Bulldogs tougher. With not as much depth as a year ago, MSU has improved in many areas. The team's defense, which was a source of irritation for Schaefer early in the season, has held 8 of 12 SEC foes below 60 points, including the last seven games. 


Not only does MSU lead the league in scoring (83.3 points per game), but it also leads the SEC in defense (55.2). 


MSU (26-0, 12-0 SEC) will try to add to those totals at 7:30 tonight (SEC Network) when it takes on Vanderbilt (6-20, 2-10) at Memorial Gymnasium in Nashville, Tennessee. A victory would help the Bulldogs clinch a share of the program's first SEC regular-season title. A win tonight and another one against No. 17 Texas A&M at 4 p.m. Sunday at the Hump would add another first to the program's annals. 


While that piece of history would fit in well with everything Blair Schafer, Vivians, and William have accomplished as part of the winningest senior class in the history of the program, it is only one piece of the puzzle. 


The next piece will be determined Feb. 28-March 4 in the SEC tournament in Nashville, Tennessee. 


From there, it's on to March Madness. As a school that likely will finish as one of the nation's top 16 seeds, MSU will get a chance to play the first rounds of the NCAA tournament at home. After that, matchups will play a role in thinning the herd.  


You need only look at MSU's record to know it will be ready to make that run. Schaefer has talked several times about the special nature of this season. He is motivated by it. He feels his players, are too. That might be a reason why the Bulldogs' defense has raised its intensity. It also could be a reason why the players' focus hasn't waned through injuries, sickness, and off nights. While other teams have allowed those things to affect them, the Bulldogs have stayed the course.  


Judging from Blair Schaefer's reaction to coach Schaefer's comment about he has shown more emotion that his players, the Bulldogs also have taken time to celebrate before getting back to work. Blair Schaefer would be the one to ask about that because she must have high-fived everyone in maroon in the fourth quarter of MSU's 57-53 victory against Missouri on Feb. 1. If you have kids, you likely have seen your kids roll their eyes at you and shake their head after you make an exaggerated claim.  


While coach Schaefer might have been serious, it's safe to say the Bulldogs will continue to enjoy each step in another history-making ride. They also won't be deterred from their ultimate goal because the seniors and this team have unfinished business. 


"I feel like we have been able to enjoy every moment, every game, as it comes and be businesslike and professional to where we understand we're good enough to go get a championship, but a championship can't be won if you think about it all together," Blair Schaefer said. 


Instead of looking at the big picture or trying to answer all of the whispers, MSU is focused on Vanderbilt. The Bulldogs will celebrate if they win and then ask, "Who's next?" They will do it with a poise and a sense of purpose that dares anything to get in their way. 


"We don't have people on our team that get caught up in, 'Oh, I didn't score tonight, but so and so did,' " Blair Schaefer said. "We have a great team effort that we have put in all year long and an understanding that we don't care who gets the points. I think that is very rare in college basketball. I think that is a big contributing factor of why we're 26-0." 


Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. You can reach him by email at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ctsportseditor.


Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.


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