Essay to Mississippi State Women’s Basketball Team
Special –- April 7, 2017
By Bo Carter, Sports Page Dallas, NCBWA, NFF
Essay to Mississippi State Women’s Basketball 2016-17
(and to Future NCAA Team Championships)
Working at Mississippi State in media relations from 1974-86, yours truly never envisioned a 34-5 team making it to the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship and pulling off possibly all-sports’ biggest upset – a 66-64 win in overtime over a Connecticut squad coming off four consecutive NCAA titles and a 111-game winning streak (longest for any varsity sport in college history).
Heck, there were years in the middle 1970s when MSU began varsity women’s athletics when the teams had two changes of uniforms (these were pre-Nike and adidas marketing measures, of course) and drove to all road games in vans piloted by coaches and media relations personnel.
These “salad days” included 10-14 wins annually, four coaches in a 15-year span from 1974-89, rugged times in Southeastern Conference play when it started officially in 1982-83, and no SEC regular-season or tourney titles in the first 35 seasons of its existence, 33 consecutive SEC losses from 1982-86, and fan apathy.
State’s all-time SEC-games-only record of 144-281 (.339 winning percentage) still holds up the other 13 teams in the league, and that makes the success of the last three seasons under head coach deluxe Vic Schaefer even more unbelievable.
Schaefer has led the team to three consecutive school-record seasons for wins, 27-7 in 2014-15, 28-8 in 2015-16, and the 34-victory season in 2016-17.
And some of the baseline and better budgets were laid starting in 1998-99 under former head coach Sharon Fanning-Otis. The former Kentucky women’s head coach led MSU to its first NCAA bid (the school now has eight additional appearances since that season), a then-best-ever SEC finish of 7-7 for a tie for fifth place, and a final mark of 17-11.
That opened the door for future recruiting classes with the likes of 1999-2000 USBWA Freshman of the Year LaToya Thomas (later the 2003 Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award recipient along with 2005 winner Tan White), SEC 2000 Freshman of the Year and both 2002 and ’03 SEC Defensive Player of the Year Thomas, 2014 SEC Defensive Players of the Year Armelie Lumanu in 2010 and Martha Alwal in 2014, and 2017 SEC 6th Woman of the Year center Teaira McCowan.
It just takes a little winning attitude recruiting, a good-guy workaholic coach with a daughter Blair Schaefer (named after his mentor and longtime women’s basketball legend and Hall of Famer Gary Blair) who can shoot three-pointers and a little luck to forge one of the most amazing turnarounds of a total program in women’s basketball or college sports history.
And last weekend was all set to be the Time of the Bulldogs for NCAA team championships.
The Gonzaga Bulldogs men’s squad made the NCAA Final Four for the first time while Mississippi State’s women joined the 1996 MSU men as the only two Bulldog squads to make it to the Final Four.
And when 5-5 “Itty Bitty” guard Morgan William of the MSU women made the 21st Century 15-foot “(jump)shot heard round the world” in the upset of the Huskies, Gonazga was on the eve of a 77-73 victory over South Carolina to avoid a Carolina vs. Carolina men’s final in the Phoenix title game last Monday.
One day after that, the South Carolina women (the eighth all-time combo of one school’s men’s and women’s teams advancing to the NCAA basketball semifinals) ended State’s dream with a convincing 67-55 victory, which was the third of five MSU losses applied by the Gamecocks in 2016-17.
On Monday, April 3, six-time NCAA men’s basketball champ North Carolina outslugged Gonzaga 71-65 to send both Bulldogs home on a right side of the score note.
More importantly for both Mississippi State and Gonzaga, that elusive first NCAA team championship in any men’s or women’s sport remained a dream, but for thousands of fans, alumni and basketball enthusiasts hope reigns eternal.
In MSU’s case in addition to the 1996 men’s and 2017 men’s semis and finals, the Battlin’ Bulldogs made it to within two wins of the NCAA Baseball World Series title in 1985 behind baseball legends Rafael Palmeiro, Will Clark Jeff Brantley, and Bobby Thigpen, among others, before falling on a walkoff grand slam 6-5 to eventual NCAA diamond champ Miami (Fla.).
Some 28 years later, the baseball Bulldogs were two victories away from another NCAA crown before they dropped two decisions to 2013 NCAA first-time DI diamond winner UCLA and to end another near-miss campaign.
For universities such as MSU and Gonzaga, that “eternal hope” remains alive, and the Mississippi State women are being celebrated at all events surrounding the annual Super Bulldog Weekend at the Starkville, Miss., campus.