Mississippi State University's women’s basketball (32-1, 16-0 SEC) is a projected number one seed in the NCAA Tournament.
This statement was true before Sunday’s 62-51 loss to the University of South Carolina Gamecocks (26-6, 12-4 SEC) in the SEC Tournament final, and it remains true even after the loss. MSU won the outright SEC Title during the regular season, but the tournament title eluded them.
While NCAA tournament standings were likely not affected, the loss of the SEC Tournament to South Carolina for the third time in a row is certainly a gut-punch for a team many felt to be unrivaled in the SEC after winning the outright regular season title earlier in dominant fashion.
Head coach Vic Schaefer and his players maintained throughout their winning streak that there are segments to the basketball season, and when each part is over, they close the door on it.
With only the NCAA Tournament left, they must now, more than ever, shut the door on the past while still learning from it. The Bulldogs had no answer for South Carolina star and SEC Player of the Year A’ja Wilson, but most teams will not have a player of her caliber.
They have to figure out what to do when teams successfully eliminate the threat of Teaira McCowan and nobody on the team can land a shot.
Morgan William had 10 points in this game and was the second-leading scorer, but only played 29 minutes, and not at all in the fourth quarter. Vic Schaefer elected to go with defense, but could William have given a boost to a struggling offense when they needed it most? What about throwing Chloe Bibby into the mix? This is something Schaefer will have to figure out in the event a team finds a way to shut down McCowan again.
The rest of the team struggled as well. For a team known for their offense, MSU shot only 34.5 percent from the field and missed five layups in the fourth quarter. But the truth is they were not only outscored but out-rebounded by 15 as well.
There are people who say the women needed this loss, but this could not be further from the truth. This team was not cocky, it was confident. They are still on a collision with the still undefeated (and now only undefeated team in the country) University of Connecticut, (30-0, 16-0 AAC) a team which already beat South Carolina 83-58 earlier this season. Even so, this loss was far more damaging than any other loss MSU could have had all season. It was not just the stage, but the opponent as well.
South Carolina is a mountain they thought to have climbed when they beat them earlier in the season. South Carolina's head coach Dawn Staley now owns 11 out of the last 12 meetings with the Bulldogs. In essence, she has MSU’s number, and she’s figured out how to beat them. For now.
Schaefer and the Bulldogs need mental toughness with the NCAA tournament looming nearer, as they will no longer be the favorite in every game. They have shown they can be beaten, and every team they face from now on will try to duplicate what the Gamecocks did on Sunday.
But this is all they can do, shut the door and move on. The perfect season is over, but a potential National Championship season is not out of the picture.