Record Breakers, History Makers
Bulldog’s historic season starts new chapter for NCAA women’s basketball


W

hen Mississippi State’s bus shifted into park at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, the team managers quickly hopped off first, as is their custom. The rest of the staff waited while the players began to follow from the back. But then Vic Schaefer stood up and held out a staying hand as he walked halfway down the aisle to where his players were preparing to leave.

“Hey, headphones off, y’all,” he said as he got the attention of his full roster. “Everybody hear me? Listen up. Do not get off this bus unless you believe that we are going to beat Baylor and go to the Final Four.”

Here, Schaefer paused and looked over his team, making sure the message was sinking in and giving his players a short second to reflect on their deepest thoughts and true feelings.

“You’ve got to believe it,” he continued. “You’ve got to know it. So, don’t get off this bus unless you believe it.”

Schaefer gave them one more meaningful look before turning to walk off the bus. For a brief moment, no one moved. Then, in unison, the Bulldogs rose to file down the aisle and off the bus.

   


They all believed.

When Mississippi State’s women’s basketball team came home from the SEC Tournament in March, it limped back into its locker room. For the nearly two weeks between the loss to South Carolina in the championship game and the start of NCAA Tournament play in Starkville, all the team had to think about was how the wheels seemed to fall off over the last stretch of the season.

From early November to late February, the Bulldogs only lost one game. They beat highly ranked, big-name teams and fought off the desperate attempts of scrappy unknowns. Schaefer’s team was dominant for nearly four-straight months of basketball, setting records left and right as his team cruised through one of the toughest schedules in the country and navigated the harsh waters of the Southeastern Conference.

The Bulldogs rose as high as No. 2 in the country, with the mighty Connecticut Huskies as the only team between State and the top of the basketball world. Then, for whatever reason, their marathon stretch of incredible performances hit one snag, then another. Going into the final week of the season, Mississippi State had to win just one of its final two games to take home the SEC’s regular season championship.

Instead, the Bulldogs lost both games, ending what had seemed like a historic regular season with a 19-point home loss at the hands of an unranked Tennessee team. Mississippi State stumbled through the SEC Tournament, winning its first two games by double-digits and advancing to the tournament title game for the second straight year but not doing much to inspire hope for a grand postseason run.


When Mississippi State lost by 10 to South Carolina in the tournament’s title game, things were clearly not the same for the once-mighty Bulldogs. They were beaten. They were hurt. And in the minds of most, they had peaked too early, performing their greatest feats with nothing of substance truly on the line.

Lost championships. Lost opportunities. Bruised egos and bodies alike given time to either fester or heal as the team waited to see what its national, post-season fate would hold.

When the NCAA Tournament bracket was revealed, Mississippi State seemed to have drawn the toughest possible road to a championship, despite being chosen to host the first two rounds at Humphrey Coliseum. Forgetting the well-known foes waiting in the Sweet Sixteen and beyond, the Bulldogs had a pair of difficult opponents to beat in Starkville before they could even get out of Mississippi.

“You’ve got to believe it. You’ve got to know it. So, don’t get off this bus unless you believe it.” ~ Vic Schaefer

MSU had easily disposed of similar scrappy underdogs during their great stretch in the regular season but they didn’t appear to be the same Bulldogs anymore. That’s why they weren’t supposed to make any great waves in the postseason. It’s also the reason they went on to do exactly that.

When MSU’s starting five stepped onto the court against Troy in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on their home court in Starkville, it was clear that Schaefer was either desperate or crazy—or perhaps both. The fifth-year head coach pulled the majority of his usual starting lineup, including the team’s leading scorer. In their stead, he gave little-used role players the starting nod on the big stage.

As it turned out, Schaefer was neither desperate nor crazy—brilliant might be the more apt term. The role players turned in career-high performances. Mississippi State crushed what was supposed to be a difficult opponent, defeating the Troy Trojans 110-69, a score almost unheard of in the postseason. Two days later, the same lineup similarly destroyed a talented DePaul team by a score of 92-71 to advance to the Sweet Sixteen in Oklahoma City.

“I talked to my kids today in pregame about who we are and what we’re known for. I talked about toughness and competitive spirit,” Schaefer told reporters after beating DePaul and securing the school’s second-straight Sweet Sixteen appearance. “Hopefully we’re getting hot at the right time of year. That’s what this tournament is all about.”

Whatever message Schaefer was trying to send his stars, whatever motivational directives he employed, the move clearly worked. But going forward, there were no more scrappy underdogs. The path from Starkville to the Final Four in Dallas was littered with blue bloods.

First up, Mississippi State faced Washington, a roster home to the country’s leading rebounder and NCAA all-time leading scorer. In a matchup against a pair of superstars, the Bulldogs’ super team came out victorious, taking down their first set of Huskies 75-64 and advancing to the Elite Eight for the first time in school history.

But if making it that far was unlikely for State, it was in the round of eight that the run was supposed to finally end. The one-seed Baylor Bears were the biggest team in the country and the favorite in college basketball circles to finally dethrone UConn. That they might fall to the Bulldogs was hardly even considered outside of Mississippi State’s locker room.

   


When the Bulldogs filed off the bus that Sunday afternoon in Oklahoma, they didn’t care what everyone else expected. They knew they were going to win, and that’s exactly what they did in an overtime victory of 94-85 that earned a Final Four matchup in Texas against head coach Geno Auriemma and his great Huskies of Connecticut.

The Bulldogs had been setting records all season, but it was in Dallas that they would face the full force of NCAA history—going up against the best coach in the game, the longest streak NCAA basketball had ever seen, and a roster full of the best players the country had to offer the last four years running.

UConn came into the game having won 111-straight games and were cruising to what would be its fifth national championship in a row. Playing the games was a mere formality. Just one-year prior, the Huskies handed MSU one of the worst losses in NCAA Tournament history when they destroyed the Bulldogs in the Sweet Sixteen. How much had really changed since then?

When the game began–the biggest game in MSU history, to that point–State did well. The Bulldogs didn’t just keep up with the Huskies; they led for most of the game–up by as many as 16 points in the second quarter–and forced the No. 1 team in the country to play at their pace. But when the fourth quarter came, UConn started its push. The game was tied at the end of regulation, and in overtime, UConn continued to assert its will. Like Olympic sprinters saving their breath for the final lap, Auriemma’s Huskies took control of the game when it mattered most.

With 26.6 seconds left in overtime, Mississippi State’s senior guard Dominique Dillingham was called for a flagrant foul, giving UConn both the ball and a pair of free throws. Incensed at what he thought to be a bogus call, Schaefer’s temper flared red-hot as he yelled at the referees and required a pull from members of his staff to be brought back to the bench. In the moment, it seemed that call would be the final move in UConn’s game–the backbreaking moment for the Bulldogs and the legacy-holder for the Huskies.

Seconds later, Schaefer turned to his bench and gave each player a single, loud message.

"You were built for this!"


“You were built for this!” ~ Vic Schaefer

He said it to every starter, looking them in the eyes and reminding them that they were supposed to be there. They were supposed to find a way to do the impossible.

Moments later, with only seconds left on the clock, Dillingham brought the ball up the court with the game tied at 64. If she could find and hit a shot, she could avoid a second overtime and atone for the foul called just before. But as she dribbled, she found no open space, no window for a shot.

With barely two seconds remaining, she passed the ball to the smallest player on the court, and after a quick step toward the basket, 5-foot-5-inch guard Morgan William pulled up and hit the biggest shot in Bulldog history. The buzzer sounded with the ball still in the air and by the time it fell quiet the ball was through the net. The Bulldogs had won. They had beaten the greatest team of all time. Mississippi State had made history.

As players piled on the court, Bulldog fans throughout the arena, across the country and all over the globe celebrated in shock. The world of sports was buzzing with one thing and one thing only: Mississippi State University.

From there, perhaps it was too much to ask a team to play for a national championship a mere 30 hours after returning to the hotel from its monumental win. It was poetic tragedy that Mississippi State had to face South Carolina for the chance at yet another title, and that it was again the Gamecocks who took down Mississippi State–thrice robbing the Bulldogs of what they sought so badly.

Regardless of who hit the last shot of the season, the story remains about who hit the biggest shot of the year–the biggest shot the game had ever seen. When William’s high-arcing ball fell into the net, it secured the greatest upset in basketball history, wrote a new chapter in the storied sport, added a new hero to the pantheon of greats, and established a legend to be shared and remembered in college basketball lore.

Mississippi State was never supposed to do it. They were never supposed to make it that far. But those making the predictions, the talking heads who tried to write the story before it happened, had missed out on something the Bulldogs knew the whole time: they were built for this. They believed it. They knew it. And they did it.

They believed it. They knew it. And they did it.

A Defining Phrase

No matter the reason for the speaking engagement, no matter the context of the interview, no matter the location of the press conference, Vic Schaefer always ends his remarks with the same sentence:

Praise the Lord and go Dawgs.

Schaefer is the head coach of Mississippi State’s women’s basketball team, but that’s just what he is. Who he is shows in the statement that has become the catchphrase of the popular Bulldog coach.

As important as basketball may be to him, Schaefer says faith will always come first in his family, and he never has to look far for a reminder of just why it matters so much. His son Logan, now a healthy and happy marketing major at Mississippi State, nearly died after receiving a traumatic brain injury in a freak wakeboarding accident years ago.

Schaefer says the sight of his son, as well those of his daughter Blair—a senior on his Bulldog team—and his wife Holly, are enough to remind him of the blessings he’s received.

And now, as the head coach at Mississippi State, he has found a second family in the Bulldogs and yet another reason to live and work with happiness and humility.

“Praise the Lord and go Dawgs,” quoted Breanna Richardson, who played four seasons for Schaefer and is part of the winningest class in school history. “It’s all of him in one sentence.”

 

 

By Bob Carskadon | Photos by Kelly Price | Video by Hail State Productions and David Garraway