Mississippi State sends message with win in title game rematch

play
Huge fourth quarter lifts Mississippi State past USC (1:04)

The No. 2 Bulldogs enter the fourth quarter losing but outscore the No. 7 Gamecocks 26-9 and win 67-53 to remain unbeaten. (1:04)

STARKVILLE, Miss. -- There isn't anybody left Mississippi State can't beat.

Who knows what the NCAA tournament will bring. We never know when it comes to a time of year that can witness a 5-foot-5 guard who can fell Goliath. But after No. 2 Mississippi State beat No. 7 South Carolina 67-53 to end an 11-game losing streak against the Gamecocks, we know that.

The only team to beat Connecticut in the Huskies' past 134 games, Mississippi State finally beat the team that made last year's historic upset one of the great footnotes in sports history. Mississippi State stunned the world against Connecticut, but South Carolina left the Final Four with the national championship.

That hurdle remained, and with it that last little bit of lingering doubt.

That doubt remained after a painfully slow first quarter Monday night. It remained when South Carolina took a lead into the fourth quarter. But Victoria Vivians, the one player who, for better or worse, seems immune from doubt kept shooting. And a run allowed a wave of noise from the biggest crowd in program history to wash away the doubt.

"When the lights come on, these kids, they continue to be able to handle the moment," Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said after his team improved to 24-0 and 10-0 in the SEC. "So far, no moment has gotten too big for them."

It looked on more than one occasion that the Gamecocks would walk out of Starkville with yet another win. The record crowd of 10,794, complete with scalpers working the sidewalks outside Humphrey Coliseum, roared through pregame activities. But it was left mostly silent by the end of the first quarter. It wasn't just that South Carolina led 20-10 after the first 10 minutes, it was that A'ja Wilson led 12-10.

With South Carolina using Wilson and Alexis Jennings to much the same effect as it used Wilson and Alaina Coates in so many wins against the Bulldogs the past three seasons, the Gamecocks forced Mississippi State to react and move away from its four-guard lineup. It was just the third time this season that Mississippi State trailed after one quarter, and the others were by a combined four points.

A lot changed for Mississippi State in the second quarter. Junior guard Jazzmun Holmes provided a burst of defensive ball pressure. Australian freshman Chloe Bibby offered size and stretched the court offensively. Invisible in the first quarter as South Carolina dominated the boards, Teaira McCowan began to rebound even as her offensive game remained absent.

But for all the nuances that exist in a game, someone still has to get the ball to go through the cylinder. And in both the first quarter, when nothing else was working, and the second quarter, when all of the other pieces were starting to fall into place, that fell almost entirely on Vivians.

Monday would have qualified as the quintessential Vivians game until this season, the kind of performance that makes it so difficult to evaluate the senior who has scored more points than all but two active players in Division I. She scored 24 points but needed 24 shots to get there. That is, by any measure, inefficient and looked a lot like the player who made just 32 of 98 shots in six losses against South Carolina and never shot better than 38 percent in any of her first three seasons. She hasn't been that player this season, shooting 50 percent from the field entering Monday's game, but she was again on this night.

"She shot 33 percent," Staley said. "She's a 50 percent shooter. I thought we did a job on her, making her take the type of shots that we had her taking last year -- and missing. But over the course of the game, she's going to hit some big ones. Those are the ones that hurt you. I thought she put us back on our heels and drove the ball a lot more."

And that's the thing: Not only does Vivians seem to believe every shot is going in, no matter what the track record suggests, it becomes very easy to believe the same thing watching her. So when she pulled up for a deep 3-pointer with Mississippi State down 22-10, the crowd was roaring in anticipation before it even cleared the rim. Just like the next one 37 seconds later.

"I just shot it," Vivians said. "Jazz got us going, so I felt like if I'm open in transition, why not take it."

And the last person who is ever going to question her shot selection is the only one whose opinion matters.

"[Vivians] gets 24 shots -- you know what, I called 24 plays for her," Schaefer said. "I might have called more, and she turned them down. I've got a lot of confidence in that kid."

She scored 20 of Mississippi State's 29 points in the first half. She kept them in touching distance in the first quarter and provided the points to complement the defensive lockdown in the second quarter. Or perhaps the points that made it easier to lock down on defense.

"Once we started scoring, it kind of settled us in on defense," Schaefer said. "Didn't put such a premium on getting a stop every time."

One more big moment awaited her after that first half, but she needed help from her teammates. She got it in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter with a run that perhaps wasn't season-defining but certainly offered a look at how this program defines itself.

Trailing 44-39 after South Carolina's Doniyah Cliney banked in a 3-pointer to end the third quarter, the Bulldogs finally broke loose as a pack. Blair Schaefer and McCowan combined to cut the deficit to a single point, McCowan's basket off an offensive rebound just her second field goal in the game. Vivians fittingly hit the 3-pointer that reclaimed the lead, but then Schaefer brought the crowd to full frenzy with back-to-back 3-pointers off assists from Holmes. It was a 13-0 run by the time it was over, and the rest of the game became time management.

A year ago, even in a season that would end the way it did in Dallas, Mississippi State drew 10,500 for a signature February game against Tennessee. The Lady Vols silenced the crowd by taking an 18-8 lead after the first quarter and cruised to an 18-point win. At some point between then and now, partly before the Final Four and perhaps partly as a result of it, that team became this team. That program became this program.

"I see them every day, so I know their faults," Vic Schaefer said. "Sometimes, I've got to get past that because everybody on the outside keeps telling me how good they think we are. ... Until you come watch us practice, until you come live with us for a while and understand the price that these kids have paid their entire career, what they've done over a four-year period, you just don't have any idea what's in their breastplate."

As with any great rivalry, this might not be the last time these teams meet. It might not be the last time the Bulldogs try to figure out what to do with Wilson, and it might not be the last time South Carolina's young lineup gets to test itself. But if they meet again, there will be no doubt about Mississippi State's credentials.

"They're our league's best team," Staley said. "The record shows it, the rankings show it. They did a great job. I'm happy for them, I'm happy for them that they could perform that way in front of all these people. Because there are some people that haven't watched women's basketball before that were in the building. I just hope it's not in vain. They've got to get back in the gym and support this team."

If the Bulldogs give them nights like this, they might follow them all the way to Columbus.