Prior to last season, Mississippi State wasn’t exactly among women’s college basketball’s elites. Before 2017, the Bulldogs had been to just two Sweet Sixteens. Nobody knew the names Vic Schaefer, Morgan William or Teaira McCowan. In fact, the most notable thing Mississippi State had done was get blasted by the historic 2016 UConn team in the Sweet Sixteen, 98-38.
That changed last April.
The Bulldogs — a two seed — made a run to their first Final Four, knocking off No. 3 Washington and No. 1 Baylor on the way. But it all came together in the national semifinal when they did the impossible. They knocked off the undefeated UConn Huskies, winners of 111-straight games and the previous four national championships.
Morgan William’s overtime winner made Mississippi State a household name.
Despite falling to South Carolina in the national title game, the Bulldogs didn’t fade from the spotlight. Instead, they took it to the next level by completing an undefeated regular season, earning a top seed in the NCAA Tournament as they made their second consecutive Final Four.
“They have had the target on their back from day one, just talking about last year and what they were able to accomplish,” head coach Vic Schaefer said. “As the year went on this year, being undefeated for 32 games was a big challenge and they handled that like a pro all year long.”
When Schaefer took over in 2012, he had a vision for the program and stuck to it. After a sub-.500 record in his first season, the Bulldogs won 22 games the next season and reached the WNIT. The year after, they reached the NCAA Tournament for just the seventh time in program history and haven’t missed it since. Each season, they’ve taken another step forward.
“My vision is exactly what we’re experiencing last year and this year,” he said. “I believed this could happen. I believed that we had the blueprint.”
Schaefer set his sights high when he started. Previously an assistant coach at Texas A&M and Arkansas, and before that head coach at Sam Houston State, he wanted to join the ranks of South Carolina, Notre Dame, UConn and Stanford, etc. in his first major head coaching gig.
“I didn’t believe I was brought here to have a Top-25 team. I wanted to come here and build a Top-10 program,” Schaefer said. “There’s a difference between Top-25 teams and Top-10 programs. Programs are there every year. Year-in, year-out. You pick up a preseason poll, you’re looking for a certain team in the Top-10. You don’t know where they are going to be but they are in the Top-10.
“Those teams 17-25 are fluid. One week they are in the pole, the next week they are out, the next week they are not receiving votes, the next week they are receiving.”
Unlike many of the other teams in that upper-echelon of women’s basketball programs, Schaefer doesn’t get the highest-rated recruits to Starkville. Instead, he focuses on getting the right players that would help him build the culture he wants.
“That first recruiting class wasn’t highly ranked. I think they were ranked 35th and maybe seventh in the league of 14 teams, but they were kids that fit,” he said. “They fit our style of play. They fit what we desperately needed here, which was a competitive spirit and toughness. We just didn’t have that.”
Schaefer found players that were overlooked by the recruiting rankings but fit his system and played with something to prove. That hard-nosed style of play — along with suffocating defense — has become a hallmark for Hail State.
“It’s part of our program. It part of our DNA of who we are. We have a saying in our locker room: It’s not what we do but how we do it that separate us from the rest of the country,” he said.
“This team has really prided itself on work ethic, attention to detail, and I think you’re going to see a team that has tremendous chemistry, and they love playing the game. They really have a lot of fun playing a game. They have been a blast to coach.”
But it’s not a matter of riding one strong class to back-to-back Final Fours. He’s consistently brought the right players to Starkville and once they get on campus, Schaefer rarely loses them.
“I think I’ve lost six kids in six years who have actually been on official visits here,” he said. “It’s a tremendous place, tremendous people in this state. And we have a beautiful campus. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had recruits and parents here and their parents have told me, ‘Coach, we had no idea this was here.’”
But for as far as the Bulldogs the have come in the past few years, they are still missing the ultimate prize: a national championship. Last season they were on the doorstep. This year, they are back in the Final Four — just two wins away from the top of the mountain.
“Our mission this year is unfinished business. Our kids have embraced that,” Schaefer said. “We’ve been fueled by what happened a year ago.”
However, the coach certainly isn’t overlooking the fact they need to beat Louisville to even have the chance to compete for the title.
“For us, we’ve now got to get ready and play a very, very good Louisville team that’s extremely well coached, great players,” he said. “We’re both from very good conferences and our challenge this week is trying to get ready for them.”