Back to Rocky Top: Bulldogs look to win again at home of Lady Vols

MSU's Blair Schaefer
Staff Writer

Every week is a new challenge in Southeastern Conference women’s hoops, but No. 3 Mississippi State continues to answer the bell.

The Bulldogs remain perfect at 19-0 and 5-0 in conference play and they are searching for back-to-back 20-win seasons. To get to that point, their biggest challenge to date is on the horizon.

MSU heads to Knoxville, Tenn., Sunday at 2 p.m. for the premiere SEC matchup of the season to this point. It pits two top 10 teams looking for a leg up in one of the most difficult conferences in America. If anyone knows how difficult it is to win in Thomspon-Boling Arena, it’s the Bulldogs who won their first game ever at Tennessee last season.

“We’ve got to go to a place that, historically, has been very difficult to play against a team that has been very difficult to play,” MSU head coach Vic Schaefer said. “(Tennessee coach Holly Warlick) and her staff got them a heck of a team. We’ve got our hands full – there’s no doubt. Hopefully some of our kids have a bad taste in their mouth from the last regular season game a year ago.”

Warlick has had the tough task of replacing, arguably, the greatest coach in the history of women’s basketball in Pat Summit. A longtime member of Summit’s Lady Vol staff, Warlick knew the expectations at the school.

The last couple of years have been met with scrutiny as Tennessee hasn’t hit its standards. Last year the Lady Vols went 20-12 with losses to teams like Ole Miss, Auburn, Georgia and Alabama. They finished the year in round two of the NCAA Tournament.

This year, those expectations are as high as ever. Tennessee (16-2, 4-1 SEC) started the season a perfect 15-0 and rose to No. 6 in the country, but it has lost two out of three games falling at Texas A&M two weeks ago and blowing a 23-point lead at No. 5 Notre Dame on Thursday.

The Lady Vols are a much different team at home, however, and their length creates issues. It begins and ends with star center Mercedes Russell. The 6-6 senior averages 16.9 points and 8.7 rebounds a game.

“They have Mercedes Russell," MSU guard Blair Schaefer said. "She’s really, really good. When you have a big body inside, it gives your team an avenue to be that much better. They have a lot of guards that go rebound so we have to put a focal point on boxing out.”

Blair was one of the main reasons that the Bulldogs were able to beat Russell and the Lady Vols in their home arena for the first time ever a year ago. During her time at State, Blair is 3-2 against Tennessee being a part of all three wins in school history against Tennessee.

That game last year helped MSU believe that it could beat anyone on any given day.

“We were just focusing on playing a complete game … segments at a time,” Blair said. “That arena is really loud. They have a lot of fans so sometimes it can be hard to hear and you have to put a lot of effort into focusing on listening to your point guard and coaches in the huddle. We have to go in there and do all of our jobs.”

The Bulldogs need the same game plan to do the same thing two years in a row.

Along with Russell, Tennessee has senior Jaime Nared, who has been a thorn in MSU’s side at times. She’s averaging a team best 17.4 points per game and also pulls down eight rebounds. The team as a whole uses its imposing size as the second-leading scoring team in the SEC at 84 points a game.

The Lady Vols are second behind the Bulldogs, who have been hard to stop with their four-guard lineup. Teaira McCowan and Victoria Vivians average 40 points per game between them and pull down 19 rebounds. If MSU is to win again, the Bulldogs will need both to be on top of their game.

They’ll, of course, also need some more heroics from Blair Schaefer, who knocked down three critical 3-point shots. A total team effort gets State to 20-straight wins, but they’ve been in this moment before thanks to last year’s historic win.

“It gives us confidence, but at the same time it was one game,” Blair said. “We know what it takes to go in there and win at that stadium, but they have a great team. They have new players and players that have gotten a lot better.”

Sunday’s 2 p.m. contest can be seen nationally on ESPN2.