For the first time since 2019, Mississippi State women’s basketball earned a bid into the NCAA Tournament.
Led by first-year head coach Sam Purcell, the Bulldogs embraced their motto “Why not us?” and cruised to a 70-56 victory over the University of Illinois in the First Four game in South Bend, Indiana.
Coming in off two straight losses, the Bulldogs looked to regain their firepower and stay alive in the tournament. MSU’s Anastasia Hayes discussed the Bulldogs’ hunger to get back on the court following their SEC Tournament loss.
“We’ve worked really hard for the last two weeks. Losing the first game in the SEC [Tournament] wasn’t what we wanted, but we knew we may have another chance to get into March Madness,” Hayes said. “We went back, and we worked really hard, and that’s all we did the past two weeks. We worked hard, worked our execution and just having fun.”
The first quarter was a tightly contested battle between the two teams. In the first few minutes, MSU’s offense was sparked by Jessika Carter’s six quick points. At 5:10, the game was knotted 8-8. Both teams continued to fight and matched shot for shot in the final minutes of the first. However, MSU held a slim two-point lead going into the second quarter off a buzzer-beater three-point shot by Kourtney Weber.
The teams continued their tight-knit battle in the second quarter. Neither team’s offense took control, but Illinois’ offense outscored MSU’s by 1 point. Going into halftime, the Bulldogs were ahead 31-30, led by Carter’s 10 points.
MSU opened the third quarter on a 5-0 run in the first two minutes. Illinois ended the run at 7:40, but the Bulldogs quickly put up the equalizer. After a close first half, MSU found its offensive groove and began to widen its lead.
While the Bulldogs’ offense stepped on the gas, the defense held on as they gained a 10-point lead with 6:18 left in the quarter. At 4:49, JerKaila Jordan stole the ball from Illinois’ Makira Cook and drove her way to the basket.
Jordan’s effort continued MSU’s dominating play in the quarter. With 3:28 remaining, the Bulldogs sprinted to a 14-point lead.
The third quarter ended with the Bulldogs outscoring the Fighting Illini 21-8.
Illinois head coach Shauna Green spoke about the challenge the Bulldogs brought coming out of the half and the momentum change in the third quarter.
“I thought they [MSU] pounded it in a couple of times more. They went into Carter more off initial action, where they weren’t doing that before, they were running more of their chin action and keeping her high. She had 10 [points] at half, and I thought we did a good job at her. They did a good job in the second half,” Greene said. “We just had two or three turnovers at the start of the half; I thought that was a total momentum changer.”
Dominantly ahead 52-38 at the start of the fourth quarter, the Bulldogs looked to deliver one final dagger to the Fighting Illini. MSU’s offense quickly meshed as the Bulldogs found themselves ahead by 22 at 7:41. Illinois continued to fight to cut MSU’s lead, but their efforts weren’t enough to overcome the Bulldogs’ commanding lead. The Bulldogs survived and advanced to the first round of the tournament.
Coach Purcell mentioned the impacts of making the NCAA tournament and earning the win.
“For us to kindle that fire and embrace one of the best fan bases in the country … for them to join and believe in my young women and rekindle something special, obviously, for us to get here and get to this point. We just didn’t play; we won,” Purcell said. “Now, I think it’s a statement across the country, ‘They really have something special,’ which I know when this is over, it will help us a lot with recruiting and with us moving forward.”
Carter’s 22 points, nine rebounds and four blocks, JerKaila Jordan’s 11 points and Anastasia Hayes’ 11 points were vital in the Bulldogs’ victory over the Fighting Illini. For Illinois, Cook, Genesis Bryant, and Adalia McKenzie all had double-figure performances.
The 11-seeded Bulldogs (21-10) play the six-seeded Creighton University (22-8) Friday at 5 p.m. The game will be broadcast on ESPNEWS.
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