October 20, 2015 7:48:09 PM
STARKVILLE -- The rest of the Southeastern Conference shall be warned: Victoria Vivians has said goodbye to long fingernails.
Losing a fingernail -- like Vivians did in a 76-67 loss to Kentucky in the SEC tournament -- was one of the few ways opponents could hope to stop or to slow Vivians as a freshman. Last season, Vivians, the state of Mississippi's all-time leading scorer for boys and girls, led the Mississippi State women's basketball team in scoring (14.9 points per game) and earned honorable mention All-America honors from The Associated Press and second-team All-SEC accolades from The AP and the league coaches.
More importantly, Vivians played an integral role in helping MSU set a school record for wins in a season (27) and in the SEC (11) and helped lead the team to back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010.
This season, Vivians is focused on having a "great" sophomore season. She took another step toward realizing that goal Tuesday when she was one of six players named to the Preseason All-SEC squad.
"I probably won't have to do more, but I want to do more, so I am going to do more," said Vivians, the 2015 Gillom Trophy award winner as the best women's basketball player in the state of Mississippi. "I just want to be great, at a higher level, so I can make it out of college so I can make it out of college to go to the WNBA, so I have to do more every year, every season, every game."
In the same voting done by select SEC and national media members, MSU was picked to finish third in the league behind South Carolina and Tennessee. Ole Miss was picked sixth, while Alabama was picked 14th.
The lofty expectations aren't new for Vivians and MSU, which landed its highest preseason media pick in school history. Earlier in the preseason, MSU has received rankings of No. 6 and No. 8 from Athlon Sports and Lindy's. The AP rankings will come out in November.
MSU coach Vic Schaefer has encouraged all of the Bulldogs to embrace the expectations. Vivians intends to do that by returning as a more well-rounded player. In May, she competed with some of the nation's best players for a spot on the United States' teams that played in the Pan American and World University Games. She spent much of the offseason working on her ballhandling, particularly with her left hand, so she will be more dangerous off the dribbling and creating shots for herself.
"I did a lot of ballhandling so I wouldn't be afraid when I come face to face with a defender and be able to attack them or have a counter when somebody else comes to help," Vivians said. "I just have to be calm and take control."
After Vivians ranked third in the SEC and fifth among all freshmen in Division I last season, she is confident she can use experiences like the game against Kentucky in the SEC tournament and the game against Duke in the NCAA tournament to be better this season.
Against Kentucky, she hit four of her first five shots in the second half to help MSU build a 15-point lead. But Vivians lost the fingernail on her right thumb and allowed it to affect her the rest of the way as the Wildcats rallied. She finished with 19 points on 7-of-17 shooting.
Vivians also had a frustrating night in a 64-56 loss to Duke that ended MSU's season. The 6-foor-1 guard from Scott Central High School was 5 of 17 from the field and had 15 points on an afternoon in which MSU never could find the rhythm that punctuated its record-breaking season.
"It was a lot of adversity, but me fighting through it helped me a lot," Vivians said. "It helped me learn there are going to be harder obstacles than that coming up in the future because people know me now. They know what to expect, so I just have to fight through it and learn as I go."
In addition to leading the team in scoring, Vivians averaged 5.0 rebounds, 1.0 assists, and 1.4 steals per game. She hopes to improve on her 36.8-percent shooting percentage from the field to 45 percent and to become a better defensive players. Those are two things Schaefer asked her to address in the offseason. He said he has been pleased with the progress Vivians has made.
"She wants to win," Schaefer said. "She understands what her role is, and she understands she has to do things a certain way and that we rely on her for certain things. My sense with her is she will do whatever it takes to win. She wants to take the big shots, and she wants to be on the floor and loves to play the game of basketball."
Vivians also knows it will help the team if she becomes a more efficient scorer. Last season, she took double the number of shots (465) than every Bulldog except Breanna Richardson (247).
"I have to take better shots and not just throw the ball up when I can," Vivians said. "If I take more of those shots, I think my percentage will be higher because more than likely I will make more of those shots."
Even though she won't have long fingernails, Vivians said she still will paint her nails this season. She hopes her improved shooting percentage and the work her teammates have done in the offseason will help push MSU even higher.
"I don't think it should be that much tougher because coming into the SEC teams knew what I was about before we started playing," Vivians said. "I figure they probably will do the same thing they did last year and still will try to play hard. Me just getting my shot off, I am still going to play as hard as I did."
Kentucky's Makayla Epps, Tennessee's Diamond DeShields, and South Carolina's Alaina Coates, Tiffany Mitchell, and A'ja Wilson joined Vivians on the Preseason All-SEC squad. Mitchell, the reigning SEC Player of the Year, was selected as the league's preseason player of the year.
MSU will play host to Mississippi College in an exhibition game at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 10 at Humphrey Coliseum. It will open the season at 5:15 p.m. Friday, Nov. 13, against Samford in the first game of a doubleheader with the MSU men's basketball team. The MSU men will play host to Eastern Washington at 8 p.m.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.