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South Carolina denies MSU women again in SEC tournament title game

 

Adam Minichino

 

 

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Victoria Vivians air-balled a 3-pointer on the Mississippi State women's basketball team's first possession Sunday against South Carolina. 

 

Vivians air-balled a 3-pointer from the left wing on the Bulldogs' final trip. 

 

In between, Teaira McCowan was whistled for her second foul and played four minutes in the first half. MSU also missed plenty of open looks, including three layups in the second half when it was trying to add another chapter to a historical season and to deny South Carolina a shot at making history. 

 

Instead, the atypical afternoon for the Southeastern Conference's field goal percentage leader proved too much to overcome. 

 

Tournament MVP A'ja Wilson had 16 points off the bench to lead four players in double figures in No. 2 seed South Carolina's 62-51 victory against No. 1 seed MSU before a crowd of 8,215 in the championship game of the SEC tournament at Bridgestone Arena. 

 

Tyasha Harris added 14 points, six rebounds, seven assists, and three steals to help South Carolina (26-6) earn the SEC's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Mikiah Herbert Harrigan had 13 points and five rebounds, and Bianca Jackson had 11 points and four rebounds to help South Carolina become the first team in SEC history to win four-straight SEC tournament titles. The Gamecocks have defeated the Bulldogs each of the last three seasons. 

 

"We got a lot of really good, clean looks," MSU coach Vic Schaefer said. "We got a lot of shots we typically make. Even when we were trying to make our run, we missed two layups and an open three. Those are shots that have been falling for us. It was one of those days. 

 

"It is really frustrating because it has not happened in a long, long time, and if it happens from a week from now and we get those same shots, we're probably going to win by 20. Sometimes these things happen, but I just think our lack of maturity showed. We were just really stubborn. We wouldn't adjust. I implored them the whole first half to stop settling for jump shots and to attack the rim and we just wouldn't." 

 

MSU (32-1) had its 32-game winning streak, which was the second longest in SEC history, snapped in its fourth appearance in the SEC tournament title game. Tennessee beat MSU in the title game in 2000. 

 

On Feb. 5 in Starkville, MSU defeated South Carolina 67-53 in front of a Humphrey Coliseum-record crowd of 10,794. MSU shot only 36.7 percent from the field, while South Carolina shot 37.7. Victoria Vivians led MSU with 24 points. Wilson led South Carolina with 25. The Bulldogs used a 28-9 fourth quarter to pull away. The victory snapped an 11-game losing streak in the series for MSU. 

 

On Sunday, MSU trailed 30-19 at halftime after shooting 23.1 percent (6-for-26) in the first half. That effort included a 1-for-11 showing in the second quarter. The shooting percentage was the team's second-lowest of the season. It was 1-for-13 in the second quarter against Missouri. 

 

"It's tough," said MSU senior guard Blair Schaefer, who was 0-for-5 from the field, all from 3-point range. "It was the same looks we have gotten all year, but when they don't fall you wonder what are you doing differently? Are you rushing your shot? You try to adjust and it still doesn't go in. But I feel like we can't really get frustrated with it because that's what we do. We have been hitting shots for our team all year. Just because it didn't happen tonight doesn't mean it won't happen for the next six games that we have left." 

 

MSU tried to get back into the game in the third quarter by shooting 8-for-13 from the field, but South Carolina countered by going 6-for-13. The Bulldogs cut the deficit to five points six times in the quarter but couldn't get closer. 

 

MSU had its chances in the fourth quarter, too. But Jordan Danberry and Jazzmun Holmes had steals and couldn't convert layups, and Roshunda Johnson also missed a wide open 3-pointer from the right win in which she had time to set herself and think about it in the final two minutes. 

 

"I just feel like everything didn't fall in our hands today," Johnson said. "We couldn't knock down shots and everything wasn't going our way." 

 

Johnson came into the game averaging 16 points per game and shooting 46.6 from the field and 55.6 percent from 3-point range in her last five games. After going 3-for-12 from the field (2-for-8 from 3-point range), Johnson said she didn't know if or when she first had that feeling it was going to be one of those days where making shots was difficult. She said it was "pretty much everything" that came together to work against the Bulldogs. She said MSU's inability to attack the basket and willingness to settle was the biggest factor. 

 

"I don't think it was anything they did," Johnson said. "I think we weren't attacking like we normally do." 

 

Danberry's steal came early in the fourth quarter and would have cut the deficit to six. Johnson's missed 3-pointer came with 2 minutes, 25 seconds remaining and also could have moved MSU within six points. Holmes' steal and missed layup in the final two minutes and Johnson's miss made the loss even tougher to fathom because the Bulldogs, who entered the game leading the league in scoring (83 ppg.) and field goal shooting (47.5 percent), have been so good on offense nearly all season. 

 

The absence of McCowan, who was called for her second foul at the 6:27 mark of the first quarter when she tried to block a shot sliding over to help, limited the Bulldogs' options in the post. McCowan had six points and six rebounds in 24 minutes, her fewest since she played 24 in a 95-50 victory against Vanderbilt on Feb. 15 (five games). 

 

"It was my fault she got the second foul," Vivians said. "I was being lackadaisical on the ball and my girl drove and she fouled. I feel like without Teaira we lose a lot of height and a lot of rebounding." 

 

South Carolina played its part by making things tough on Vivians, who was 7-for-20 from the field. Wilson spent the majority of the second half on her and made it difficult for Vivians, who is four inches shorter, to finish over her when she attacked the basket. 

 

The length of Herbert Harrigan and the size of guards Doniyah Cliney and Harris also proved to be too much of a mix to overcome on a day MSU shot 34.5 percent from the field, its second-lowest total of the season, and was 3-for-19 from 3-point range, its lowest percentage of the season. 

 

"I just thought our kids were engaged and locked into the game plan and did not want to lose," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. "They wanted to create their own history, and they were determined to do it." 

 

MSU, which is a lock to be a top-16 seed, will now wait to see where it will be sent. As a likely No. 1 seed, MSU's best options for the Sweet 16 will be the Kansas City Region or the Spokane Region. The 64-team field for the NCAA tournament will be announced at 6 p.m. Monday, March 12 (ESPN). 

 

"This is not anything catastrophic," Schaefer said. "We played a heck of a team today that is probably playing as good as anybody in the country and we got beat. Obviously this is not one of our better games offensively. It is our poorest shooting game of the year. Typically kids that are knocking down shots and making them didn't make them. This has been my fear all year for 32 games going into No. 33, it was the night we don't shoot it well, do we have enough against a top-10 team to find a way to win a game. I ask our players that all of the time, 'If your shot isn't falling, what else are you doing to help the team win?' This is the first time all year we have had that. 

 

"I don't blame it on game three of three days. I don't think it has anything to do with that. I think you take you hat off to South Carolina. Those kids play extremely hard, especially defensively." 

 

Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor

 

Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.

 

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