Early Monday morning, ahead of Mississippi State's watershed 67-53 victory over South Carolina before 10,794 fans at the arena affectionately called “The Hump,” a breathless man entered the training facility for the team with one question:
“Is there any way to get tickets?”
He was politely turned away for what would be the most highly attended game in Mississippi State women's hoops history. But even the attendance does not do justice to how the public that has come to adore this 24-0 team, one year removed from delivering the greatest upset in the history of the sport over UConn in last year's Final Four (complete with iconic moment you'll see on highlight films as long as people watch basketball), before falling in the championship to South Carolina.
They packed into The Hump for the rematch, lined up by the hundreds two hours before gametime, donned the white shirts left for them on arena seats, and began chanting long before the opening buzzer. And those were the lucky ones. My Uber drivers both to and from the hotel were each disappointed locals who couldn't score a ticket to the game. Demand drove seat prices up into the triple digits on the resale market, and by gameday, even that pathway had disappeared: almost no seats were even available. Those who had 'em weren't selling.
“Our fans were just spectacular—what an environment for both teams to get to play in,” Bulldogs head coach Vic Schaefer said at his postgame press conference. “The Hump was just incredible. And to get to have an opportunity like that in your career, to play in that environment—and most nights it’s loud in there, y’all—but boy, tonight was special. And just to be a part of that as a coach, I really appreciate that. As a coach, it’s not like that everywhere. In fact, it’s not like that most places.”
This was not just idle coach talk, either. The arena was as loud as anybody in the press box could remember hearing anywhere. And the game, even more than last year's upset over UConn had the feeling of a crowning moment for a program that has grown, with remarkable speed, from an SEC also-ran into one of the premier bluebloods in the country.
Just two years ago, Mississippi State served as extras in the cinematic destruction of the college basketball world by Breanna Stewart and Connecticut, falling 98-38 in the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16. But if that was a brief national glimpse of what Schaefer was building, it merely provided motivation for the group who returned to Starkville and kept on building, with the number 60 (representing the margin of defeat) plastered all over the team's weight room.
Last season, Schaefer's group ascended to national prominence by making good on the number 60 signs, toppling Connecticut and its 111-game winning streak in the semi-final. But the Bulldogs fell short in the championship game, with South Carolina defeating Mississippi State, 67-55 for its first championship.
The Gamecocks represented a last hill to climb for Schaefer's crew. It was South Carolina that won the SEC regular season crown last year, then beat Mississippi State again in the conference tournament before ending their bid for a national title one game short.
So while technically Mississippi State didn't need to beat South Carolina in this regular season game to do what Schaefer and his team believe is now within reach, beating the Gamecocks certainly represents a symbolic scaling.
Early on, the moment seemed to weigh down the Bulldogs. Mississippi State missed 18 of its first 22 shots. Center Teaira McCowan short-armed a putback she's been making all season. Victoria Vivians hesitated, ever-so-slightly, before she launched her first three-pointer. Morgan William's jumper clanged off the side of the rim.
South Carolina's A'ja Wilson, who is just weeks from being selected first in the 2018 WNBA Draft barring some dramatic change, fully embraced what she recognized as a crowd akin to the full houses she sees at her own home court, only “they were booing us instead of cheering for us.”
But the players who helped Wilson win the national title last year have largely disappeared, with Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray in the WNBA, and point guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore out for the year with a knee injury.
“We are a different team, though, lots of young players who have never been in this type of environment,” Wilson said following the game. “I feel like they are the same team though.”
The same in terms of personnel, maybe, but significantly improved. McCowan handled Wilson one-on-one most of the night, pulled down 20 rebounds, and left the offensive heavy lifting to Vivians, who had 20 points by halftime.
Even when William struggled to find her own shot, Schaefer turned to backup point guard Jazzmun Holmes, just as he did in last year's championship game.
And Holmes disrupted South Carolina defensively all night, while finding open shooters like Blair Schaefer, the coach's daughter, who performed a pirouette in the air after sinking a three to give Mississippi State the lead. Her next three a few minutes later would have brought the crowd to its feet—but nobody sat down after she'd hit the first one.
Blair Schaefer knows this town well: she played at Starkville High before she even enrolled at Mississippi State, as her father began the hard work of building a program. And regardless of what happens over the next two months, she and the rest of Schaefer's senior class proved something elemental: that the right coach, supported by a real investment in the women's basketball program, can turn the team into an on-court juggernaut and source of civic pride.
Starkville is a special place for women's basketball, but it isn't unique, anymore than it turns out Knoxville was with Pat Summitt, or Storrs is with Geno Auriemma, or Greenville is for Dawn Staley. It's not a magic trick. Crowds like this are what happens when women's basketball receives the same feeding and care men's basketball or football programs routinely expect.
And once those seeds are planted, well, they take hold as surely as any other tradition. The talk all over town Tuesday morning was Mississippi State women's basketball. A man in my hotel, heading to the airport, implored his wife to join him on his next trip back to Starkville: “You haven't seen anything like watching these girls play.”
But Blair Schaefer, who said she wasn't surprised by how the program has resonated because “I knew what my father was capable of," isn't going to be satisfied with that legacy alone. She and her teammates are being asked by Vic Schaefer “to sell out until March, and then let's see where we're at.” And it looks like every one of them is doing just that.
Staley sees the signs. She built a program at South Carolina that draws as well as any in the country, so she knows how this works. And she had a message for the Mississippi State fanbase even as they celebrated their way out of The Hump Monday night.
“They're our league's best team,” Staley said. “The record shows it. The rankings show it. They did a great job. I'm happy. I'm happy for them that they could perform that way in front of all these people. There are some people that haven't watched women's basketball before that were in the building. I just hope it's not in vain. They got to get back in the gym to support this team.”
If history is any guide, they will.