February 25, 2018 12:18:56 AM
STARKVILLE -- The finish line is in sight. The gauntlet is just about over.
At 11 a.m. today (ESPNU), the No. 2 Mississippi State women's basketball team (29-0, 15-0 Southeastern Conference) will look to join a special class when it takes on Kentucky at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Kentucky, in the regular-season finale for both teams.
MSU's 76-55 victory against then-No. 17 Texas A&M on Feb. 18 clinched the SEC regular-season title outright and ended South Carolina's run of four consecutive regular-season titles. The Gamecocks also have won the last three SEC tournament championships.
A win today would enable MSU to join South Carolina (2016) and Tennessee (2011) as the only league teams to go unbeaten in the regular season since the SEC moved to a 16-game slate. Tennessee went undefeated in SEC regular-season play nine times in the Hall of Fame coach Pat Summitt's career.
On Feb. 11, MSU beat Kentucky 74-55 at Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville. The victory snapped the Bulldogs' 11-game losing streak in the series.
Kentucky (14-15, 6-9) enters the game ninth in the league standings. A win by Kentucky and a loss by Alabama to LSU today would leave the Wildcats and the Crimson tied at 7-9. Those teams will face off Thursday in the second round of the SEC tournament at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee. No. 1 seed MSU will play the winner of that game at noon Friday (SEC Network).
A possible second game against Kentucky -- or a rematch against Alabama -- in the span of six days isn't a concern of MSU coach Vic Schaefer. The only thing he and his players are focused on is making a strong kick to finish the second part of the schedule strong.
"Having to finish up at Kentucky on their senior night, it seems like that's where we finish up every year," Schaefer said. "I probably ought to talk to the scheduler in the conference office. It seems like I'm always playing them on senior night."
Schaefer said the early start time likely will alter the team's plans. He said it doesn't make sense for the Bulldogs to get up at 5:30 or 6 a.m. to have a shootaround, but he said the Bulldogs will adjust -- like they have all season -- and try to add another piece of history to an already special season.
Schaefer planned to use the final 2 minutes, 38 seconds of his team's 82-61 victory against Auburn on Thursday to reinforce that focus. He said he wasn't pleased with the way the Bulldogs closed that game and allowed the Tigers to snap a string of nine-straight games in which the Bulldogs had held opponents to 55 points or less.
"We have some things we need to fix," Schaefer said. "That's my challenge. Are we getting any better? Are we going hard enough? Are we working hard enough? Are we pushing each other to get better? That was my disappointment with that group last night. With 2:38 to go, they came in the game and gave up a six- or eight-point run to let someone get 61 on us. ... Our team has a little pride in that number (60 points). We just go out there and we slop it up. We had three or four turnovers and gave them a bunch of layups and second-chance points. I would like to see us have a little more pride than that."
MSU has played with more energy on defense down the stretch. In the last 12 games, Alabama and Auburn (both with 61) are the only teams to score more than 60 against MSU. The Bulldogs' response came after Schaefer said numerous times they weren't playing like he wanted on that end of the court. MSU is forcing 20.7 turnovers per game, which is fueling its ability to get out in transition and to get easy baskets. Coupled with 49.1-percent shooting in the last five games, MSU has found an effective mix to help keep it one of two (Connecticut) remaining undefeated teams in Division I women's basketball.
"The bottom line is if we play the way we're supposed to play I don't care who we're playing," Schaefer said when asked about the challenge of possibly playing a team twice in six days. "That is the attitude we have to take."
Schaefer said the Bulldogs have handled the burden of wearing a bull's eye and being undefeated exceptionally well. He said he doesn't want the Bulldogs to get weighed down by thoughts that one loss could make everything come crashing down. Instead, Schaefer wants them to continue to punch first and to keep punching. He said that mind-set will help the team realize its goals of winning more championships, which has been a topic of conversation all season.
"I put a picture of the SEC championship trophy on their locker back in late December, early January," Schaefer said. "I wanted them to look at it every day and see what it looked like. I wanted that to be their focus.
"If you'll go with the process and just be in the moment, the process will get you to where you want to be, which it did. We have to stay in that process. There is still so much more to play for."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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