The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University

The Reflector

The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University

The Reflector

The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University

The Reflector

Bulldogs not afraid of Final Four challenge

On Sunday night, Morgan William threw the ball in the air as she celebrated her career-high 41 points in the 94-85 overtime win against the No. 1 Baylor Bears to advance to the Final Four in Dallas.

Mississippi State returned to Starkville from Oklahoma City at approximately 1:55 a.m. greeted by loyal Bulldog fans with cowbells to congratulate them on the program’s first Final Four appearance. Dominique Dillingham said the support from the community is exciting but it’s time to go work for a spot in the national title game.

“The community has been great,” Dillingham said. “It was amazing to see the support in the community at Mississippi State but you have to put out all the excitement and get back the game plan.”

Although Starkville’s gratitude to the team’s success comes along with the vision Head Coach Vic Schaefer had when he joined the program, the time to celebrate is over and the next challenge awaits Mississippi State.

“You better get back to reality in a hurry,” Schaefer said. “Reality is coming Friday night at 9, and if you’re not ready it won’t be so much fun anymore.”

The Bulldogs waited to find out who they would play in Dallas. As they expected, the No. 1 overall seed and reigning national champions, Connecticut Huskies defeated the No. 10 Oregon Ducks 90-52 to advance to their 10th straight Final Four, improving to 36-0 and winning their 111th straight game. This will be the Bulldogs’ and Huskies’ second time meeting in program history.

The last time the two teams met was in last year’s Sweet Sixteen bracket in Bridgeport, Connecticut.  It was MSU’s first program Sweet Sixteen appearance, compared to UConn’s ninth consecutive appearance.  UConn dominated MSU, winning 98-38 and went on to claim the national title for the fourth championship in a row. Schaefer said the blowout loss was something he couldn’t ignore and uses it as a learning experience

“It was hard for me to deal with,” Schaefer said. “I felt extremely disappointed walking out of there. Embarrassing doesn’t even cover it. It all falls on my shoulders and I take full responsibility for it.”  

The 60-point loss has haunted Schaefer and the Bulldogs.  Coach Schaefer said he coaches out of failure, as Breanna Richardson solidified Schaefer’s claim by mentioning the team’s motivation to avoid another bitter loss again.

“We couldn’t forget about it even if we tried,” Richardson said. “That was your motivation. Even if you did forget, Coach brought it up. It’ s not something you can flush away. It’s something like you have a chip on your shoulder and you have to redeem yourself.”

Richardson said the team’s experiences from the season will help them overcome the plight of not knowing what to expect. Since this is the second time around, Richardson said the circumstance won’t frighten Mississippi State again.

“I think we’ve grown and matured,” Richardson said. “We know how to handle different situations and I think that getting another chance at UConn, we know what to expect and we also have a different mindset from last year.”

Teams who have faced UConn twice have showed progress to the team’s dominant force. During the 2016-2017 season, the Tulane Green Wave and UConn Huskies played on Jan. 22, The Huskies executed their usual performance, winning 100-56 but the second time was a close call. On Feb. 18, the Green Wave kept up with UConn but still fell short losing 63-60.

Dillingham said the Sweet Sixteen matchup last year may guide Mississippi State in a better direction.

“I think we’re are a lot deeper team than last year,” Dillingham said. “We’re another year in experience. We have more options to go to. We’re not relying on one player.”

Just like last year’s first Sweet Sixteen appearance, Schaefer hopes the team’s first Final Four appearance won’t generate any issues for the team. The experience of being so close to a championship is nothing new to Coach Schaefer, who took two other teams so far in the tournament.

In his 20 years of coaching in the NCAA, this will be his third school in his coaching career that has reached the Final Four milestone. Coach Schaefer said he doubts the bigger platform will shake his team as The Hump offers the same atmosphere for young women on a regular basis.

“When you play in the Final Four, you expect there to be 15-20,000 thousand people out there on the floor,” Coach Schaefer said. “I would be shocked if our kids are in awe. It’s important to play in the environment before and we’ve had success in that before.”

The team’s win over No. 1 Baylor shocked many doubters who have referred to Mississippi State as the underdogs. The Bulldogs have proved that although they are the counted out, their presence will not be undermined nor ignored. Coach Schaefer said despite the doubters and great adversity UConn will offer, he believes the team will strive to erase the ugly mark the previous matchup left. 

“I feel great about my team,” Coach Schaefer said. “I feel like we’ve gotten hot. I think right now we’re as hot as any team in the country. I’m not trading my team for anybody.”

The Bulldogs will face off against the Huskies tonight at 9 p.m. in the American Airlines Arena in Dallas, Texas. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2. The winner will play the winner of No. 2 Stanford and No. 1 South Carolina on Sunday night for the National Championship.

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Bulldogs not afraid of Final Four challenge