February 6, 2018 10:20:32 AM
Slim Smith - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- In the 1980 Winter Olympics, Team USA hockey defeated Finland to win the gold medal, but that is not the game everyone remembers. No, the game that is cemented in our collective memory came two days earlier when USA's team of amateurs knocked off the mighty Russians, an outcome so improbable that all NBC announcer Al Michaels could think to say as the final seconds clicked off the clock was "Do you believe in Miracles? YES!"
But suppose for a moment that Team USA had not made that gold-medal journey complete with that win over Finland. The luster of that historic win over the Russians would not shine so brightly in our memory.
But we would all remember Finland -- and not kindly, either.
Monday night, Mississippi State had its Finland moment, a year too late, maybe, but still oh-so-satisfying. Second-ranked Mississippi State gutted out a 67-53 win, exacting a measure of revenge against the seventh-ranked Gamecocks, who spoiled the Bulldogs' own gold-medal moment in last year's NCAA Championship game two days after MSU had recorded the biggest upset in the women's game with a win over UConn in the semifinals.
In practical terms, State's win over South Carolina Monday counts no more or no less than any of the previous nine conference wins for the Bulldogs, who ran their record to 24-0 with the victory.
MSU coach Vic Schaefer and his players were careful to portray it that way, too.
But their emotions betrayed them in the frenzied fourth quarter when the Bulldogs, through force of will alone, it seemed, wiped out a five-point deficit to beat the Gamecocks for the first time in Schaefer's six-year tenure at State, snapping an 11-game losing streak against the Gamecocks that included losses in the past two SEC Tournament championship games and, of course, last year's national championship contest.
Forget MSU's efforts at post-game diplomacy: The Bulldogs wanted desperately to avenge all those previous disappointments.
And desperately is how they played, drawing energy from the record crowd of 10,794 fans.
Fans began lining up outside The Hump around noon, six hours before game time, and when they were finally allowed to enter, 5,000 white t-shirts and white pom-poms awaited those with seats in the lower bowl of the arena. The shirts bore the message, "Make Noise," the most unnecessary instruction since frozen dinners advised, "heat before serving."
They made noise, all right, two hours of temple-throbbing, make-your-teeth-hurt, ear-ringing bedlam. There were times the crowd didn't seem human, but rather some great white throbbing amoeba out of a 1950s sci-fi movie intent on devouring anything in its path, which on this night was the game, but doomed Gamecocks.
"We don't win that game if we aren't at home," Schaefer admitted. "Our fans were spectacular."
Even when the Bulldogs' performance was less that spectacular.
South Carolina jumped out to a 20-10 lead by the end of the first quarter and stretched the lead to 12 points in the second quarter, not so much by virtue of their play but the Bulldogs maddening inability to make shots. There were times early in the game when you could have set up a 12-foot ladder under the Bulldog basket and State's players would still have found it hard to score.
MSU made just a third of their shots -- 22 of 60 -- yet still won by 14 against a top 10 team.
You just aren't supposed to win games when you do that, even if you are playing before a jam-packed home crowd that did everything short of dosing themselves with gasoline, setting themselves on fire and running onto the court.
So the prevailing question that awaited Schaefer and his players after the game was a simple one: How?
"Toughness," said Schaefer. "We were down by 10 and it could just have easily gone to 20, and that would have been that. The last time we had a sellout crowd, that's what happened."
Schafer was alluding to last year's final home game of the regular season, when unranked Tennessee thumped the Bulldogs by 18.
But, for maybe the first time against the Gamecocks, the Bulldogs were the tougher team Monday.
After surrendering 20 points and allowing South Carolina to make two-thirds of their shots in the first quarter, State smothered the Gamecocks, who scored just 33 points in the final three quarters and made just 13 of their final 42 shots.
The Bulldogs scraped and clawed and fought. Some games are notable for their artistry. This was not one of those games. This was a sledgehammer fight in an elevator, close-quarter carnage.
"This game was about toughness," said Schaefer, who told his team in his pre-game talk that South Carolina had been the tougher team in their previous losses to the Gamecocks.
The Bulldogs weren't going to suffer that fate again, not this time.
No banners will be hung from the rafters at Humphrey Coliseum to commemorate this win.
The Bulldogs stuck it to their Finland, finally. There need be no further reminders.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]