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Toughness leads MSU women back to Sweet 16

 

Mississippi State's Roshunda Johnson drives past Oklahoma State's Mandy Coleman in their game Monday night in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Mississippi State's Roshunda Johnson drives past Oklahoma State's Mandy Coleman in their game Monday night in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Photo by: Chris McDill/Special to The Dispatch

 

Adam Minichino

 

 

STARKVILLE 

 

The Bulldog in the 2017-18 Mississippi State women's basketball team reared its head Monday night. 

 

MSU coach Vic Schaefer said it best following his squad's 71-56 victory against Oklahoma State that he felt like the Bulldogs "bowed their neck" and showed the toughness and grit he loves to see in his players. 

 

That's a great sign given No. 1 seed MSU (34-1) has to win four more games to claim the ultimate prize that eluded it last season. 

 

The next step on the journey will come at 6 p.m. Friday (ESPN) when MSU takes on No. 4 seed North Carolina State (26-8) at the Sprint Center in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament's Kansas City Regional. 

 

Perhaps its fitting that MSU has to eliminate a team that in many ways is a mirror image of itself to reach the Elite Eight for the second-straight year. The Wolfpack, who are coached by veteran Wes Moore, is an athletic, aggressive group that likes to rebound.  

 

With a four-guard lineup, rebounding has been a point of emphasis for the Bulldogs. That conversation starts with junior center Teaira McCowan, who is third in the nation in rebounding (13.3), but others like Victoria Vivians (career-high 6.2 per game) and Roshunda Johnson (three per game) have done their job to ensure the Bulldogs' lack of traditional post size in the starting lineup hasn't been a liability. 

 

In fact, Schaefer's move to the four-guard lineup has fueled a second-straight 34-win season highlighted by the program's first Southeastern Conference regular season. The Bulldogs continue to score at a high clip (82.09 points per game) and to defend (55.57) with the nation's best teams. 

 

Earlier in the season, it remained to be seen if the Bulldogs would find their footing on that end of the court. Schaefer said early and often that the 2017-18 Bulldogs weren't a good defensive team. Yet there they were Monday limiting a team that scored 76 on them in December to 56 points. The effort is even more impressive considering the Cowgirls scored 20 points in the first quarter. 

 

It is almost as if the Bulldogs responded to the challenge of their coach to show him they could be a good defensive team. 

 

Now, though, the challenge is to see if good can become great. 

 

Morgan William offered a taste of that Monday when she raised her level and scored 17 points. More importantly, William's defense on graduate student Loryn Goodwin, who had 35 points in MSU's 79-76 win on Dec. 3 in Starkville, played a huge role in the Bulldogs' ability to control the tempo. 

 

While Vivians and McCowan led the way in scoring against OSU, MSU will need Johnson and Blair Schaefer to play bigger parts this weekend. Johnson arguably has been the team's most important piece because the offense flows so well when she is playing well on both ends of the floor.  

 

Schaefer has played a similar role. She showed some of that determination MSU needs at a critical juncture by hitting a jump shot when the Bulldogs trailed 20-12 in the first quarter. William added another jumper at the end of the period. The baskets were part of an 8-0 run that erased the Cowgirls' momentum and set the stage for a strong third quarter that ultimately turned the tide. 

 

"I think the team that was more tough, had more in them, was wanting to win -- I think that is what this tournament is all about, the team that has the most left in them," Blair Schaefer said. "I feel like when they got tired, we weren't, and we punched and punched and punched and they essentially got punched. I think that is when we spread the lead a little bit. When a team is down, we try to put them away and keep it going. That is when they called the timeout first, and that is when it went downhill for them." 

 

MSU likely will have a strong following in Kansas City. It remains to be seen if the maroon and white following will be as large as it was last year in Oklahoma City and in Texas, but the support will be there. The victory against Oklahoma State offered hope that MSU learned its lesson from a disappointing shooting performance against South Carolina in the SEC tournament title game. The Bulldogs attacked and continued to punch, particularly when they trailed in the first half. They stayed with that approach in the second half to close an 18-0 slate at home and to match the 2016-17 team for the single-season record in wins. 

 

Safe to say that the 2017-18 team wants to bow its neck four more times to reach magic number 38 and capture the program's first national title. Judging from the last game, the Bulldogs appear to be engaged, willing, and ready. 

 

"Tonight when it maybe was kind of not going their way, they found a way to find themselves, find their teammates, get everybody settled down and make it happen," coach Schaefer said. "I thought their presence on the court was great." 

 

 

 

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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