TARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi State’s run to its first Final Four in program history has generated more than a little excitement in Starkville the past few days.
Although there’s a sobering memory percolating beneath all the jubilation.
The Bulldogs have earned an NCAA Tournament rematch with UConn, which dealt the program an embarrassing 60-point beatdown in the Sweet 16 last season.
Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer doesn’t mind saying it was one of the most disappointing moments in his career. And it’s also the reason he’s asking his team to push aside the well-wishers for the next few days and focus on the task at hand.
Mississippi State (33-4) gets its second shot at the Huskies (36-0) on Friday in Dallas. UConn has won 111 straight games and is two games from a fifth straight championship. The Mississippi State-UConn winner will play the winner of the Stanford (32-5) and South Carolina (31-4) in the other national seminfinal.
“At some point you better get grounded in a hurry,” Schaefer said. “You better get back to reality in a hurry. Because reality is coming on Friday night and if you’re not ready, it won’t be very much fun.”
Almost all of Mississippi State’s players know firsthand the reality Schaefer is talking about.
The Bulldogs’ roster is nearly identical to last year, when the team’s season ended with a 98-38 loss to UConn . The game was just as ugly as the score would indicate, with the Bulldogs falling into a 61-12 hole by halftime. It set a record for the biggest margin of victory in the regional round and beyond.
“Embarrassing doesn’t even cover it,” Schaefer said.
The Bulldogs will certainly be the underdogs once again on Friday, but they’re also on a mission to prove that last year’s lopsided loss to UConn was an aberration.
“We’ve matured. We know how to handle different situations,” Mississippi State senior forward Breanna Richardson said. “I feel like we’ll handle this differently this year than we would have last year. With us, just getting another chance at UConn, we’ll know what to expect.”
Mississippi State is also playing some of its best basketball of the season. Schaefer surprisingly shook up the starting lineup before the NCAA Tournament — starting role players like Blair Schaefer, Roshunda Johnson and Ketara Chapel instead of usual starters like Victoria Vivians, Dominique Dillingham and Chinwe Okorie — and it was just the jolt the Bulldogs needed.
Mississippi State has had different stars in every game of the NCAA Tournament, with Blair Schaefer, Teaira McCowan and Morgan William all thriving at different moments. The 5-foot-5 William, who is averaging about 11 points per game this season, scored a career-high 41 points in Mississippi State’s 94-85 overtime win over Baylor on Sunday.
Knocking off UConn will take another herculean effort from somebody. None of the Bulldogs are promising anything on Friday, but they’re confident they’ll give the Huskies a better game.
“I know what I’ve got in my locker room,” Vic Schaefer said. “People who’ve paid attention to us throughout the course of the year know it too. I know what’s inside our breastplate.
“I’m not trading our kids for anybody.”