January 17, 2019 10:20:39 AM
The biggest rivalry in women's college basketball used to be Connecticut vs. Tennessee.
Forged at the beginning of UConn's ascendancy to a national power and during Tennessee's reign as the sport's premier power, the teams captured the attention of the nation and helped elevate women's basketball.
The rivalry between UConn and Notre Dame has replaced UConn-Tennessee as must-see television for the casual women's basketball fans. Programs like Baylor, Stanford, and Louisville also have climbed to national relevance and had their time on the national stage to build their profiles.
But no two women's basketball programs have done a better job of enhancing their brands in the last five-plus years than South Carolina and Mississippi State. The teams faced off in the national title game in 2017. They have battled in the championship game of the Southeastern Conference tournament the last three seasons. They also have attracted raucous crowds at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, South Carolina, and at Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville and generated buzz on national TV to help increase attention on the sport.
At 6 p.m. Thursday, a national TV audience on ESPN will get another chance to see how MSU has become a women's basketball school. The Hump will be awash in white in a promotion that will feature T-shirts and plenty of rowdy Bulldog fans. MSU sophomore Chloe Bibby said there will even be hyped Bulldog followers in her home country of Australia, where her family and friends will watch the matchup of undefeated SEC powers.
Women's basketball needs more games like this. Both programs have become mirror images of their coaches. Three-time Olympian and five-time Women's National Basketball Association All-Star Dawn Staley leads a gritty, energetic South Carolina team that can beat you in a variety of ways. The Gamecocks no longer have All-American A'ja Wilson, but they have used the addition of Tennessee transfer Te'a Cooper to bolster a talented backcourt that includes Tyasha Harris and Bianca Cuevas-Moore. Post players like Mikiah Herbert Harrigan and LeLe Grissett will provide athletic and rangy counters to MSU senior center Teaira McCowan.
MSU fans know what Schaefer and his staff have done in Starkville. The coaches have built a national power at a place that seldom registered at the national level prior to their arrival. Now, huge crowds and double-digit victories are expected. The Bulldogs, who have advanced to the national title game the last two seasons, created that "monster" with a hard-nosed, never-be-denied attitude. MSU has added a little more polish and efficiency to its game the last few years, but the Bulldogs' identity has and always will be built off tough defense and a mentality that they won't be outworked.
That's what makes the latest installment so enticing. Despite being 16-1 (4-0 in the SEC), you get a sense MSU has something to prove. South Carolina has been Schaefer's nemesis in his time in Starkville. The Bulldogs' victory in the 2017-18 regular-season snapped a nine-game losing to the Gamecocks' in Schaefer's tenure. On Wednesday, he used the word rivalry and made clear it really isn't a rivalry if one team has all of the success. Still, Schaefer enjoys the fact that a South Carolina-MSU game in January attracts so much attention.
"We certainly have had some knock-down dragouts over the last few years," Schaefer said. "I said at this time last year that it is great that we have this quote-unquote rivalry, but I would like to win one every now and then. We finally got one at home in front of a tremendous crowd and a great atmosphere. We had another rematch in the SEC tournament championship game, and they impose their will on you so much. I know they're imposing her will."
For MSU, the game against South Carolina will give McCowan, the reigning national defensive player of the year, a chance to bolster her first-team All-America candidacy. It will give senior guards Jazzmun Holmes and Jordan Danberry and Bibby, who had seven points off the bench in 29 minutes against the Gamecocks in Starkville, an opportunity to show this is their team and that they have learned from teammates Morgan William, Roshunda Johnson, Blair Schaefer, and Victoria Vivians. The game also will be graduate transfer Anriel Howard's first taste of a rivalry that Schaefer feels is based on a lot of respect.
The best rivalries in every sport have that element. In other pairings, there is a little more animosity, but in MSU-South Carolina you have a rivalry that features two coaches who have built programs and are focused on keeping them among the nation's elite. On Thursday, one will get bragging rights over the other until March, when the SEC reconvenes in Greenville, South Carolina, for the SEC tournament.
"I think it is good to watch," Schaefer said. "You watch two teams that execute at a very high level, play extremely hard, pride themselves on defense, pride themselves on making tough plays, so I think it's been fun for TV to put that out on a national level, and I think it's great for our game."
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Dispatch. You can email him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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