Los Angeles, Calif. – It took some heroics in the last two minutes of play, but No. 5 Mississippi State buckled down to take a tournament championship and an undefeated record home with them.
In pulling out a 76-72 win over Southern California in the Women of Troy Basketball Classic Championship game Sunday, the Bulldogs bolstered their season record to 12-0, with 11 of those games coming on the road.
Victoria Vivians led the way for Mississippi State with 19 points, Morgan Williams added 18 and Breanna Richardson, 17. It’s the third-best start and the highest ranking in program history.
The visitors got off to a slow start, missing shots and committing 13 turnovers by halftime, when the Trojans led 33-29 going into the break. Though the Bulldogs stopped turning the ball over, USC outscored them in the paint and off fast break points to keep the score close.
Two Richardson free throws with 2:20 remaining gave Mississippi State a 72-70 lead, and William scored 24 seconds later to boost the margin. Two Kristin Simon free throws narrowed the margin for the Trojans, but a Courtney Jaco three-pointer with five seconds to go missed, and a Vivians free shot sealed the win.
Sadie Edwards led USC with 24 points, while Simon added 15 and freshman Minyon Moore, 14.
Bulldogs coach Vic Schaefer said major adjustments were made at halftime.
“We were horrible at taking care of the ball in the first half,” he said. “That was a big focal point coming into the second half. I felt like we were on our heels the entire first half. That’s not my team. Typically we’re the ones being aggressive and making other teams uncomfortable.”
“I thought they did that to us, and I took it personal. And our kids took it personal too once it was brought to their attention. So the second half we took much better care of the ball, only two turnovers.”
Schaefer said that although his squad had “mental lapses” during the game, he was impressed with their response in crunch time.
“What I do like about our team is that when it gets to be five minutes to go and the game is on the line, I love our toughness and competitive spirit, and our understanding of what needs to get done to win,” he said. “When it gets to be four minutes, three minutes and you need a stop score, this team understands that.”
Mississippi State has played only one home game so far this year, in an ambitious preconference schedule that took them to six states, from Maine to Hawaii. The endeavor was a response to the way their stellar 2015-2016 season ended, with a 98-38 drubbing at the hands of Connecticut in the Sweet 16. Both Schaefer and players described the finale as “a sour note.” But the success of their last six weeks has made them stronger, their coach says.
“In my mind, we did it,” Schaefer said. “I don’t think anyone in the country thought it could be done, but we did it, and we did it against some really good teams.”
“I’m proud of them. I can’t tell you how proud I am of them. This was a hard chore, a hard row to hoe, and they did it – my kids did it, and I’m proud of them.”
For 8-2 USC, the game gave them glimmers of their own potential. Freshman Asiah Jones had a career-high eight blocks, and their only misstep was failing to close the win. Coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke said the Trojans have to be consistent in every match up.
“We can compete with anyone if we can keep up with the number five team in the nation, but the only way that makes sense is in the next game we play to our level instead of down to the competition,” she said.
Edwards said team members have been working to support and motivate each other.
“This can’t make us complacent, but hungrier, and it has to shed light on what we can be,” she said. “In Pac 12 play….every night is going to be a battle.”
William said being so high in the rankings comes with expectations for the Bulldogs.
“We’ve got that five by our name, so that’s some pressure,” she said. “We play anyone and they think, ‘we’re going to play that number five team, so we’ve got to give them a run for their money.’ We’re going to get everybody’s best game, and we’ve always got to be ready.”
Mississippi State plays two home games before SEC play begins Jan. 1. The Trojans have one away game before beginning Pac 12 play Dec. 30.