From Jacksonville, Fla., to Greenville, S.C, and Nashville, Tenn., coach Vic Schaefer and Mississippi State had to evade falling confetti at the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship to get to the locker room.
Three-straight seasons they were in the tournament final and three-straight seasons the Bulldogs walked off the floor with the loss. On Sunday, they finally broke through.
Behind an offensive explosion, MSU blistered the underdog Arkansas Razorbacks and didn’t let up for four quarters until the buzzer sounded. When it did, they had a resounding 101-70 win and proceeded to cutting down the nets at Bon Secours Wellness Arena.
“I’ve cut down a lot of nets in my career, but in this conference as a head coach, that moment has eluded me," Schaefer said. "I believe that God puts you through some things that prepare you for something down the line. My kids have had that same heartache. It’s about our kids. To see the fruits of their labor come to fruition, it’s just a very rewarding moment.”
The first three losses in the tournament were against South Carolina, which was the No. 1 seed twice and No. 2 seed last season when it beat the Bulldogs. No matter the opponent, this State team wasn’t going to be denied this time around and it played like it from start to finish.
While No. 10-seeded Arkansas had already gone toe-to-toe to beat the second and third seeds of South Carolina and Texas A&M in consecutive days. It was going to take another magical day from the Razorbacks to finish off the trio of top seeds.
Some of the Arkansas magic was still present in the first few minutes of the first quarter when it was able to hold a 12-8 lead at the 6:27 mark. From that point on, the Bulldogs took that magic away and claimed their crown.
State went on an 18-0 run and outscored the Razorbacks 20-2 the rest of the way in the quarter for a 28-14 lead. McCowan had 10 points out of the shoot.
“We know that we can’t give in," McCowan said. "Coach always says that these games are about toughness. Whether it’s mentally or physically, we have to be dialed in.”
The incredible first half continued into the second quarter as State followed up the 28-point opening frame with 26 in the second. The Bulldogs finished the first half shooting 72 percent from the field and hitting four of six 3-pointer to take away any threat from Arkansas early.
State scored 22 or more points in every quarter in the game to hit the century mark. It was the first time since 2007 that there was a team that notched 100 or more points in an SEC Tournament game and it was the most points the Bulldogs have ever scored in a tournament game.
MSU finished the game 40-of-64 (63 percent) from the field, but most impressive was the 3-point shooting, which was its best effort of the season. The Bulldogs hit 12-of-18 shots from beyond the arc led by Andra Espinoza-Hunter, who splashed home 8-of-11 from distance for a career-high-tying 24 points in 29 minutes.
McCowan also had 24 points in the game as she went 11-of-15 from the field with 14 rebounds. She finished as the tournament’s Most Valuable Player as she averaged 22.6 points and 14.7 rebounds in three games.
Joining McCowan on the All-Tournament team was Anriel Howard, who had 14 points and six rebounds for an average of 19.6 points and 6.7 rebounds a game in the tourney. Jazzmun Holmes also made the All-Tournament team after finishing with 12 assists and five rebounds in Sunday’s win.
“I think we played together as a team," Holmes said. "We found the open person and we made shots and got to the paint. That was the key thing to this game in getting them off the three-point line. That was the plan and I’m glad we got it done.”
Bre’Amber Scott had her second double-digit scoring performance of the tournament and had 20 points on 7-of-9 shooting off the bench with 4-of-5 from 3-point range in 22 minutes.
Next up for the Bulldogs is the NCAA Tournament selection show that comes a week from today. They have been projected to be a No. 2 seed in the tournament this season and to Albany (New York) Regional matched up with No. 1 Connecticut.
To get to a Sweet 16/Final Four regional site, MSU will have to win two games at Humphrey Coliseum as Holmes, McCowan, Howard, Jordan Danberry and Zion Campbell play one last time at home.
For now, the players are celebrating for themselves but also for their coaches, especially Schaefer.
“I know coach is going to do whatever it takes to win,” Holmes said. “He’s going to give us his best whether we’re up by 30 or up by 10. All of our coaches are going to give their all so we have to play for them.”