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MSU's challenge is to build on legacy

 

Mississippi State’s Bre’Amber Scott, left, and Myah Taylor, right, console teammate Morgan William after Arike Ogunbowale hit the game-winning shot in the final  seconds to lift the Notre Dame women’s basketball team to a 61-58 victory in the national championship game Sunday in Columbus, Ohio.

Mississippi State’s Bre’Amber Scott, left, and Myah Taylor, right, console teammate Morgan William after Arike Ogunbowale hit the game-winning shot in the final seconds to lift the Notre Dame women’s basketball team to a 61-58 victory in the national championship game Sunday in Columbus, Ohio. Photo by: Jim Lytle/Special to The Dispatch

 

Adam Minichino

 

 

COLUMBUS, Ohio 

 

Vic Schaefer worried for weeks he wouldn't have the words when he finally had to say goodbye to seniors Roshunda Johnson, Blair Schaefer, Victoria Vivians, and Morgan William. 

 

At one point last month, the Mississippi State women's basketball coach became emotional as memories of the seniors' accomplishments flooded his brain. There are so many, which is Schaefer, a man who seldom is at a loss for words, wondered if he would have the right ones to thank the seniors for everything they have done to elevate the program into one of the nation's best. 

 

Schaefer didn't have to worry because he and his seniors won the news conference Sunday night.  

 

They much rather would have won the game. 

 

On this night, though, that honor went to Notre Dame thanks to Arike Ogunbowale's 3-pointer with 0.1 seconds remaining that lifted the Fighting Irish to a 61-58 victory in the national title game at Nationwide Arena. 

 

After two national semifinal games that featured dramatic shots Friday night, Ogunbowale's off-balance shot from right corner secured Notre Dame's second national championship and coach Muffet McGraw's 800th victory. It left many members of the national media debating whether the 2018 Final Four would go down as the best in the history of the sport. They also discussed how three games that featured the NCAA tournament's four No. 1 seeds raised the profile of a sport that continues to try to gain traction with all basketball fans in every part of the country. 

 

That talk was of little solace to coach Schaefer, seniors Johnson, Blair Schaefer, Vivians, and William, and the rest of the Bulldogs, who lost in the national title game for the second-consecutive year. 

 

"I thought they fought," coach Schaefer said in his opening statement after the loss to Notre Dame. "These four seniors have been so special. They've done so much for me personally as well as professionally. They spent time at my house. I've had dinner with them numerous, numerous, numerous nights, more nights than you can count. Spent time obviously at the gym with them over the last four years. This is a high character, classy group of seniors." 

 

That comment touched on the legacy of a group of seniors that won a program-record 126 games and was the first to play in the NCAA tournament all four years. Along the way, the seniors helped pave the way for record crowds in Humphrey Coliseum and led the program to its first Southeastern Conference regular-season title. They also played pivotal roles in pushing MSU to the first undefeated regular season by a SEC team in 20 years. 

 

The seniors added to their legacy after the game. Blair Schaefer defended her father when he tried to accept the blame for not getting MSU home after it led by 15 points in the third quarter and by five points with less than two minutes to go. Vivians showed her maturity by answering all of the questions posed to her about her defense on Ogunbowale on the final shot. William avoided a post-game pit fall when she was asked if she was fouled after MSU tried to push the basketball up court in the final seconds following a Notre Dame turnover. A foul would have put William -- a 86-percent free throw shooter -- on the line with about five seconds remaining and given her a chance to break a 58-all tie. 

 

"No whistle, so it wasn't a foul," William said. 

 

Instead of a foul and a chance for free throws, MSU lost possession of the ball near midcourt. Junior center Teaira McCowan committed her fifth foul to prevent the Fighting Irish from passing the ball to two open players at the other end of the court. The sequence also set the stage for Ogunbowale's second dagger of the weekend. On Friday, she drained another shot in the waning seconds to help Notre Dame come from behind to beat Connecticut. The loss was the second in two seasons for the Huskies. It also marked the second-straight season UConn has lost in overtime in the national semifinals. 

 

MSU knows how painful that feeling can be. Still, the Bulldogs were accountable. They didn't blame another slow start in the first quarter. They didn't mention struggles in the second and third quarters that prevented them from building bigger leads. They didn't mention foul calls that could have -- or should have -- been called that would have changed the complexion of the game.  

 

They knew better. MSU couldn't blame anyone because it had its chances. An offense that hummed so smoothly for most of the season slowed to a crawl as the Bulldogs tried to feed McCowan, who had a height advantage inside. McCowan had 18 points and 17 rebounds for her 29th double-double of the season, but going against the zone defense robbed the Bulldogs of the fluidity and creativity that made them so successful in a program-record 37-win season. As a result, Vivians attempted only two field goals and two free throws in the final 10 minutes. Johnson, whose 3-pointer against Louisville on Friday helped send that game to overtime, also attempted only two field goals, including a 3-pointer from the right wing as the shot clock expired that gave the Bulldogs a 58-53 lead with 1 minute, 57 seconds remaining. 

 

On many other nights, that would have been enough. But Notre Dame's Jessica Shepard made one of the game's biggest plays with a diagonal pass from the right block to the left wing to Marina Mabrey, who drained the team's first 3-pointer to cut the lead back to two. The basket erased MSU's momentum and set the stage for finish that left the Bulldogs walking off the court while the music played and confetti rained down on them. 

 

"It hurts right now," coach Schaefer said after the game. "Again, it's not their fault. They played their hearts out, and you just got to give Notre Dame credit. They made one more play." 

 

The loss in no way diminishes the legacy of what the seniors have done for MSU and women's basketball. They have made a sport that in many respects was an after thought six years ago into one of the nation's biggest attractions. The disappointment will sting. The mind will wander to what could have been if the Bulldogs hit a few more free throws or controlled a few more rebounds, but that shouldn't be the focus. 

 

There's no doubt Schaefer and his coaching staff with intensify their efforts to build the Bulldogs' killer instinct. You can see that intensity in McCowan when she fixes her gaze at you and promises she will have her team ready for the 2018-19 season. 

 

At the highest levels, one play can determine a champion and a runner-up. Regardless of the sport, the ability to maintain focus and to execute for an entire game is the hardest thing to do. It requires determination, dedication, and sacrifice. Johnson, Schaefer, Vivians, and William epitomized those qualities in MSU's program the last four years. Their legacy will last forever.  

 

The challenge for McCowan, Jazzmun Holmes, Jordan Danberry, and the rest of the Bulldogs will be to build on that legacy by becoming a little tougher, a little smarter, a little better fundamentally. It's not going to be easy. It's going to require a lot of hours in the gym when no one is looking. The returning Bulldogs are going to going to have to tap into a drive deep within them that pushes them to do more -- to want to be a champion. 

 

If the Bulldogs need a reminder, they can remember the feeling of coming so close to the ultimate prize again and falling short. If they want to honor the legacy of the last two senior classes, they will accept that challenge and let their actions -- not their words -- speak for themselves. 

 

 

 

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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