As the final seconds ticked down in the women's national championship game, four Mississippi State seniors fought tears and tried to comfort one another.
That's to be expected. Their college careers ended one victory short of the first national championship in Hail State history. They were heartbroken after Sunday night's 67-55 defeat at the hands of Southeastern Conference nemesis South Carolina.
Dominique Dillingham, who plays the game as relentlessly as it can be played, lost her battle of emotions. She wept. So did Chinwe Okorie, Breanna Richardson and Ketara Chapel. Dillingham and Richardson were playing their final college game in their home state. Richardson came to State from Georgia, Okorie, all the way from Nigeria.
Some day, hopefully soon, the hurt will subside and they can celebrate what they accomplished, which was plenty. They were key parts of teams that won 111 games while losing only 34. That's a 76.6 percent winning percentage in the toughest women's basketball conference in the land. They won 34 games as seniors. On the way to the national championship game, they defeated, in three consecutive games: Washington and Kelsey Plum, best player in college basketball; No. 1 seed Baylor with its seven five-star recruits, and, most impressively, the No. 1 ranked UConn Huskies, who had won 111 consecutive games.
“These seniors have been very, very special,” Schaefer said. “They believed in a vision five years ago when we recruited them, when it wasn't easy to believe… These kids believed. They made it happen... They're always going to have a special place in my heart because of what they've accomplished, for believing and trusting in us.”
Schaefer virtually promised that State will be back in the Final Four, and he hinted it could be soon.
“We've got a heckuva team coming back and the nation's 19th ranked recruiting class coming in,” Schaefer said.
It would not surprise this observer if State makes it back sooner than later. They have coming back the darling of this NCAA Tournament, point guard Morgan William, leading scorer Victoria Vivians and Teaira McCowan, a 6-foot, 7-inch post player who should make a small fortune playing this game. William and Vivians will be seniors, McCowan a junior.
That's the future, but whatever happens for Mississippi State women's basketball – and a national championship is not out of the question – the foundation was laid by the four seniors. Vic Schaefer's system is defined by tough, physical basketball. The four seniors showed all who come behind them how it is done: By defending, man-to-man, as if your life depends on every possession, by taking charges and gladly taking the bruises that come with them and by diving after loose balls as if they were made of gold. Dillingham, especially, epitomizes all that.
My seat on press row for the championship game was right behind the State bench. Schaefer obviously loves his players, but “tough love” is very much a huge part of his system. He doesn't accept anything less than maximum effort. If he sees anything less from any player, she quickly has a seat on the bench.
What Schaefer did Sunday night was a perfect example. William was a half-step slower than she normally is after playing 44 minutes Friday night, so she took a seat on the bench and was replaced by sophomore Jazzmun Holmes. When Holmes played well and gave the Bulldogs a spark, Schaefer left her in the game. It seemed odd: William, suddenly a national hero, watching the fourth quarter.
Afterward, somebody asked William about it and this is what she said: “Jazzmun went out there and did a good job. She had energy, which was what Coach was looking for...she went three for five from the field, she was putting pressure on the ball and scoring points, so I can’t be mad. It’s what was best for the team.”
That kind of attitude bodes well for State's future. That's the kind of attitude Dillingham, Okorie, Richardson and Chapel have made the norm at State. They leave Mississippi State much, much better than they found it.
Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.