It’s about getting that sixth win
By Richard Farley
Special to High Post Hoops
PORTLAND, Ore. – Forgive Arizona State for trying to get in the way: in the way of a juggernaut, with a maroon “Mississippi State” emblazoned across its hood; in the way for a Bulldogs’ quest for completion and closure, now almost two years’ old; in the way of a regional final most foresaw when this year’s NCAA women’s bracket was drawn. Ultimately, the West’s five-seed were never that close, and a rematch of two of the nation’s biggest stars was never that far.
With their 76-53 victory at Moda Center on Friday night in Portland, Oregon, the Mississippi State Bulldogs (33-2) are one win away from a third-straight Final Four, surviving 26 fouls from an aggressive Sun Devil approach to forge a 1-2 matchup on Sunday against the University of Oregon. The Ducks’ 63-53 win over South Dakota State in the evening’s nightcap means the two teams who faced each other on Dec. 18 in Eugene, Oregon, will meet again, this time for a place in the Final Four.
“That’s a great team that we beat today,” MSU head coach Vic Schaefer said of Arizona State postgame, closing his press conference’s opening remarks. “I’m tickled to death that our kids played the way they did. It took a great effort from us to win that game tonight.”
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The Sun Devils’ Pac-12 pedigree, as well as a style of play that could match the Bulldogs’ intensity, may have fueled hopes of an all-West Coast regional final, but Jazzmun Holmes’ 13 points and seven assists showed how little the region’s top seed cared about such possibilities. Sophomore Andra Espinoza-Hunter’s 5-for-11 shooting from around the key’s mosh pit confirmed why the SEC champions, in search of their third final-game appearance in as many years, would be unmoved to any potential change of course. Surviving a Sun Devil plan that confronted MSU center Teaira McCowan as if she were a blocking sled on a college football practice field, Schaefer’s team proved every bit the title-contender their top seed, sparkling resume and recent history already implies.
That’s why Sunday’s game might signify the true start of their tournament – the first match that will bring Mississippi State’s 2018-19 campaign into doubt. The West’s second seed will make sure of that, as will the presence of the country’s best player. McCowan would have a claim to that label in most seasons – her 22-point, 13-rebound Friday confirmed as much – but with their regional hosted less than two hour’s drive from Oregon’s campus, another star, Duck standout Sabrina Ionescu, was always going to be this region’s brightest star.
The Oregon junior lived up to that status on Friday, posting 17 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds in what was, by her standards, a muted performance. In that way, though, her evening had parallels to McCowan’s, who was only afforded three chances from the field through as many periods against the Sun Devils. Doubled-teamed throughout the night, on and off the ball, McCowan’s greatest impact was her gravity, creating open shot after open shot for teammates before, with 15 points, exploding in the fourth quarter. By the time the game’s final 10 minutes arrived, Arizona State had been physically bested – worn out by trying to keep McCowan from the ball.
“Oregon does have (center Ruthy) Hebard who can really match up pretty well with McCowan,” Sun Devils head coach Charli Turner Thorne explained, after the match, when asked to forecast Sunday’s game, as if the center-versus-center matchup is the first that comes to mind about the West’s final. No, in the few hours we have before Sunday’s morning’s tipoff, we’ll instead hear of a different clash of titans – the differing persuasions of two incomparable styles. Hebard and Holmes, Satou Sabally and Anriel Howard may play the supporting role in the ESPN buildup, but Sabrina and Teaira will be the stars.
For as big as McCowan’s game is, though, giving her Arizona State levels of focus risks missing the real story of Mississippi State, a team that is more than just an antagonist in Ionescu’s potentially college-ending run. This is a team whose trademark victory – two years ago against Connecticut in the Final Four – has not been followed by victories in either of the last two national finals. It’s a team which, three years ago, made the school’s second-ever Sweet Sixteen and has since established itself as one of the best programs in the nation, yet has not reached the final post. Thanks to a senior class of McCowan, Holmes and Jordan Danberry, Schaefer has taken his program to what, as of four years ago, would have been unpredictable levels. Yet, as the last two year’s disappointments’ remind, there’s still room for a final first.
“Vic, with his four seniors, coming up short two years in a row, they’re a hungry, hard-working, talented team,” Turner Thorne said, including transfer Anriel Howard, reminding us the real story of this year’s Bulldogs. Anybody who faces Mississippi State knows they’re as good as any team in college basketball, and they have been for three years. But without a win in the tournament’s sixth game – without a final jewel to slot into their nearly-completed crown – few beyond college basketball’s most cloistered cognoscenti will recognize their greatness. They won’t be at the level of South Carolina or Notre Dame, the teams that have foiled them in recent finals, nor a team like Baylor, whose continued success is built on their two recent titles. Connecticut and Tennessee are gold-standard brands in the women’s game, but until the Bulldogs break through, they can’t make such a claim, not yet.
It’s unfair, in a way. There is little more a program could ask from a playing class than what MSU’s departing four have given the Bulldogs. As McCowan passing LSU great Sylvia Fowles for first on the all-time tournament rebounding list attests, Mississippi State’s recent tournament history has been prolonged and thorough. Yet it has not been prolonged enough. It has not been thorough enough.
Sunday’s West final might be portrayed as a rematch of titans that have split meetings over the last year; or, more flashily, it could been painted as an alpha and omega of collegiate superstars, mastering their games inside versus out. But the bigger story this weekend, at least for the Bulldogs, is going to be about closure. It’s going to be about completely. It’s going to be about legacy.
It’s going to be about whether the greatest class in Mississippi State history can continue its quest for greatness; or, whether that legacy will be about new levels, yet ultimately coming up short. Arizona State tried to get in the way. On Sunday, it’s Oregon’s turn.
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