Mississippi State faces the difficult challenge of sustaining the success it has had during the brilliant careers of four Bulldog seniors, who transformed the women’s basketball program from a Southeastern Conference also-ran to a national powerhouse in a few short years.
A bitter loss in the national championship game can’t change what they accomplished, though reflection was difficult in the immediate aftermath of such an emotional game.
“It hurts right now,” said Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer, whose team lost in the national finals for a second straight season.
The Bulldogs lost a heartbreaker on Sunday when Notre Dame hit a 3-pointer in the final second to win 61-58 . Mississippi State fell to South Carolina 67-55 in last year’s championship game.
But the loss to the Fighting Irish was tougher to handle, and not just because of Arike Ogunbowale’s last-second, game-winning shot.
Mississippi State blew a 15-point, third quarter lead and held a 58-53 advantage with less than two minutes remaining. It was also the final college game for the Bulldogs’ senior quartet of Victoria Vivians, Blair Schaefer, Morgan William and Roshunda Johnson.
“These four seniors are so special,” Schaefer said. “They’ve done so much for me personally as well as professionally.”
Mississippi State’s improvement the past four years is especially tied to Vivians, who was a first-team AP All-American this season after averaging nearly 20 points per game.
The 6-foot-1 guard could have played just about anywhere in the nation after a terrific high school career at Scott Central, a small school in central Mississippi. But she decided to stay close to home and the Bulldogs had their star.
She finished her career with 2,527 points, but the scoring was almost secondary to the immediate credibility she gave the program. Her presence allowed Vic Schaefer to recruit other elite players — including 6-foot-7 center Teaira McCowan — and the Bulldogs flourished.
William will be most remembered for her game-winning, buzzer-beating jumper to beat UConn in last year’s national semifinals. The shot in overtime ended the Huskies’ 111-game winning streak.
Blair Schaefer — the coach’s daughter — and Johnson were also starters this year, contributing clutch shooting throughout their careers.
The Bulldogs (37-2) won 32 straight games to start the season and the SEC regular-season championship this season.
“They mean the world to me,” Vivians said of her fellow seniors. “I’m glad I came in with this class.”
Now Vic Schaefer will try to keep the Bulldogs among the nation’s elite with a very different roster next season. McCowan said she expects to be back, which will give Mississippi State the anchor in the middle of the floor that Schaefer covets.
Backup guard Jazzmun Holmes — who has played a large role the past three seasons — also returns.
But Schaefer knows he had something special with this year’s group of seniors and that they will be hard to replace.
“I’m so proud of them,” Schaefer said. “I’m proud to be their coach. I’m proud of their fight. They’re going to be so successful in life because of their grit, their determination, and how they embrace the grind of life as well as the grind of basketball.”
Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP .