March 27, 2018 11:30:27 AM
Adam Minichino - [email protected]
KANSAS CITY, Mo.
Starkville's Fantastic Four is set to take Columbus, Ohio.
It will be the last push for seniors Roshunda Johnson, Blair Schaefer, Victoria Vivians, and Morgan William to lead the Mississippi State women's basketball team to a national title. Their next step will come at 6 p.m. Friday (ESPN2) when MSU (36-1) will take on Louisville (36-2) in the first national semifinal. Connecticut (36-0) will take on Notre Dame (33-3) at 8:30 p.m. Friday in the second semifinal. The winners will meet at 6 p.m. Sunday (ESPN) to determine the national champion.
This year's Final Four marks the fourth time in tournament history that four No. 1 seeds have advanced to the national semifinals. It's the 11th-consecutive Final Four appearance for UConn, which breaks a tie with John Wooden and the UCLA men's team for the Division I record. UConn also is in the national semifinals for the 19th time overall, snapping a tie with Tennessee for the most in women's basketball history.
It's the second-straight trip for MSU, which defeated four-time reigning national champion UConn 66-64 in overtime to snap the Huskies' NCAA-record 111-game winning streak. South Carolina then defeated MSU 67-55 in the national title game.
That loss fueled the Bulldogs in the offseason. It drove them to overcome a season-ending injury to sophomore Jacaira "Iggy" Allen. It helped them adjust to the loss of sophomore forward Ameshya Williams, who left school in November.
The focus remained throughout a run to a perfect regular season, which included a 16-0 mark in the Southeastern Conference. The only hiccup has been a 62-51 loss to South Carolina in the championship game of the SEC tournament. Since then, MSU has regained its footing thanks to victories against Nicholls, Syracuse, North Carolina State, and UCLA. The latest step provided the biggest test of the Bulldogs' resolve. Buoyed by a strong defensive effort, MSU built a 16-point halftime lead. It pushed that advantage to as many as 18 points in the third quarter before UCLA cut the lead to six points six times in the fourth quarter. Each time the Bulldogs had an answer. Whether it was Schaefer hitting key 3-pointers, Johnson or Vivians attacking the basket, William leading the team, or junior center Teaira McCowan cleaning up "the mess" of her teammates, MSU had someone who was ready to shine in the moment.
Vivians and McCowan played the starring roles. Vivians led the way with 24 points and hit big shot after big shot. The Bruins didn't have an answer for her ability to create her own shot or to get to the rim. McCowan, who matched a NCAA tournament record with an 11-for-11 shooting effort from the field against North Carolina State, grabbed a career-high 21 rebounds against UCLA to set a new NCAA record for most rebounds in an NCAA Regional game.
On Monday, Vivians, McCowan, and William added additional hardware to their haul when they received All-America honors from The Associated Press. Vivians was named to the first team, while McCowan was named to the third team and William received honorable mention.
If MSU coach Vic Schaefer had his way, all five starters and backup point guard Jazzmun Holmes would have received All-America accolades. That's because MSU's success this season wasn't built on the shoulders of one player. There's no question Vivians' emergence as a more patient and efficient basketball players has allowed the offense to blossom. McCowan's emergence into a double-double machine -- a program-record 27 and counting this season -- has enabled the Bulldogs to have an inside-outside game and a presence in the paint when they need a basket.
But all of those pieces wouldn't have clicked as well as they have if the Bulldogs didn't want it. The individual talents could have been satisfied with a run to the national title game and the program's first. Instead, you get the sense the Bulldogs want more. You get the sense they relish the power their five starters have together when they share the basketball.
Coach Schaefer touched on that fact Sunday following MSU's 89-73 victory against UCLA in the championship game of the Kansas City Regional.
"This entire team has been very, very special," Schaefer said. "To be able to handle that night-in and night-out in our conference is just extremely hard. Then to do it with our postseason, with the teams we have had to go against, I just take my hat off to them. They're really incredible. To be where they are, to do what they've done is really, really difficult to do.
"I just can't be more proud of 'em. I was really worried today. I got four seniors and I don't have the words whenever this comes to an end. These seniors have meant so much to our program, to my career, to me personally. I'm so glad the good Lord gave us another week. These kids have worked their hearts out, and they deserve it."
Schaefer went on to say he feels the Bulldogs are on a "mission." It stemmed from the fact the Bruins were attempting to make their first trip to the Final Four. Point guard Jordin Canada and forward Monique Billings, who are two off the nation's top players, did their best to help the Bruins realize that goal. But Vivians led the way in more ways than one. She offered one of the best comments of her career when she said in a media availability that the Bulldogs' vision, focus, intensity hadn't changed since the 2016-17 season. She added that MSU was even more intent on trying to do what it didn't accomplish last season.
On the court, Vivians went a step further. In the third quarter against UCLA, Vivians moved from the left block to the right block to talk to McCowan, who had just been called for a foul. McCowan could be seen talking to herself and saying, "That's not a foul." But Vivians sensed the time was right to calm her teammate down and convince her to let the call go. No other play epitomizes the growth and maturation of Vivians better than that moment.
Vivians has meant so much to the program. Coach Schaefer has said repeatedly that Vivians' decision to stay in the state of Mississippi lent credibility to his efforts to build a championship program in Starkville. In year six, the nation realizes Schaefer's plan has worked. It has been demanding. It has been hard, but you get the sense MSU feels it still has something to prove going against Louisville in the national semifinals. That's why degree of difficulty won't make a difference. These seniors realize the finality of this weekend. The word "urgency" isn't one that will be thrown around lightly. The desire to win a national title and to add another chapter to a historic run will be all the motivation the seniors and the rest of the Bulldogs need.
It should be a fantastic weekend. See you in Ohio.
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.