March 15, 2018 10:53:10 AM
People in Starkville know the story well.
But with women's basketball fans from Louisiana, New York, and Oklahoma set to arrive in Mississippi, it's a perfect time to tell the tale again. It's kind of like when Santa Claus visits Starkville every year to read "A Visit from St. Nicholas" to the children on the court at Humphrey Coliseum.
We're still months away from Christmas, but Mississippi State women's basketball team and the NCAA tournament are becoming quite the tradition. In a season filled with history, the fact that seniors Blair Schaefer, Victoria Vivians, and Morgan William are part of the first class to play in the NCAA tournament every year might be the biggest accomplishment. The growth started with a 13-win campaign in 2012-13. But the ups and downs in coach Vic Schaefer's first season as MSU coach didn't diminish the potential he and his wife, Holly, saw when they visited Starkville and considered leaving Texas A&M and the state of Texas.
From the community, the schools, the facilities, to the people, everything Holly Schaefer saw on her visit to Starkville in March 2012 gave her a sense of peace.
When Holly arrived home from her trip and saw Vic, she told him, 'We can win and we can win big there.' "
Nearly six years and countless Hail State Hoops luncheons later, Holly looks over the staircase in Mize Pavilion, the practice facility for the Mississippi State basketball teams, to Humphrey Coliseum, where the men's and women's teams play their games. Behind her, a packed house has settled in for the latest luncheon. In Vic's first season as coach at MSU, there might have been just as many people in the stands for a women's game in the Hump as there were at lunchtime in the middle of the week to listen to Vic, his coaches, and his players talk about their program.
It didn't matter because Vic and Holly believed.
"We knew the vision we could see here, and he knew how to put all of the pieces together to accomplish that vision," Holly said. "Everybody in the country thought there is no way this is going to happen at Mississippi State. Now that it has, you wouldn't believe the coaches that talk about how in the world do you have a fan base like you do in Starkville, Mississippi? We get asked that all of the time, but we are the peoples' team.
"Our kids are so accessible to the fans, in the community, at the elementary schools. Every opportunity those kids have to get out, the community loves it, but our kids love it, too. In return, it pays dividends, and they are the peoples' team."
MSU had advanced to the NCAA tournament only six times prior to Vic Schaefer's arrival from Texas A&M in March 2012. The last trip -- an appearance in the Sweet 16 in 2010 -- was the high-water mark. But Vic and Holly could see a shared vision, even though MSU didn't have a sustained record of success in the Southeastern Conference. That's why they believed when others doubted.
After winning 13 games in year one, Vic Schaefer led the Bulldogs to a 22-win campaign and a berth in the quarterfinals of the Women's National Invitation Tournament the next season. Twenty-seven- and 28-win seasons and back-to-back trips to the NCAA tournament followed.
Yet the sting of a 60-point to eventual national champion Connecticut in the Sweet 16 in Bridgeport, Connecticut, haunted Schaefer. Led by seniors Ketara Chapel, Dominique Dillingham, Chinwe Okorie, and Breanna Richardson, Schaefer vowed to bring the Bulldogs back. Records were broken. Milestones were passed. Victories against Washington and No. 1 seed Baylor secured a trip to the program's first Final Four.
Redemption followed in the national semifinals when William's jumper as time expired lifted MSU to a 66-64 overtime victory against four-time reigning national champion UConn. The loss snapped the Huskies' NCAA record 111-game winning streak. It also was the 111th victory in the storied careers of those seniors.
Although MSU lost to South Carolina in the national title game, the setback didn't diminish what the Bulldogs had accomplished.
If you ask Holly, she will tell you she and Vic saw it coming.
"We just knew it was the right fit for our family," Holly said. "Now you sit back and all of these people are like, 'How is Mississippi State such a powerhouse?' It is like that movie ("Field of Dreams"), if you build it, they will come. That is exactly what has happened in Starkville, Mississippi."
Schaefer recalls wearing maroon without a MSU logo or name on her clothing when she visited the MSU campus and looked around Starkville by herself. She said she did everything a mother and a wife would do when investigating a possible new home. She said she looked at the schools, community, houses, hospital, university, gyms to determine if Starkville would be a good fit for her family. It eased her mind to find "everyone was so nice," as she said, and treated her like she had been living there all her life.
"I felt that sense of peace the entire day I was here," Schaefer said. "I just had that feeling. When I walked into the Hump and I stood on the concourse and overlooked the gym, I just knew. I had a feeling. I said it six years ago, and I say it now, it has come to fruition. I am so excited for this program."
Vic Schaefer is equally energized. His grass roots efforts and those of his staff and players have helped MSU climb into the top 10 nationally in average attendance. The Bulldogs have done it by being accessible to their fans during the week and after games.
On the court, they have played a gritty, hard-nosed style that involves taking charges and getting on the floor for loose balls. This season, a higher level of offensive efficiency has blended with Schaefer's trademark defensive principles to produce another squad that has packed the Hump on the way to a program-record No. 2 ranking in both national polls. A first SEC regular-season championship and a 32-1 record are the rewards for all of the hard work.
But it's March, so there is more work to do in a "new" season.
There might not be as many Parade or McDonald's All-Americans in Starkville as there are in other hot beds of women's basketball, but Holly Schaefer said MSU has built what few thought could happen thanks to the "effort, resilience, heart, dedication, commitment, and work ethic" of the players that she feels "rises them just a little bit above" everyone else.
That's why what she saw nearly six years ago has come to fruition.
"(Vic) put the perfect staff together because he is smart enough to know he can't do it by himself," Holly Schaefer said. "They are a heck of recruiters. They have brought the right kids, the right athletes, into this university to play the exact style of basketball he wants to play, expects to play, and will play to win."
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. You can reach him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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