Going undefeated is hard to doBy RICK CLEVELAND,
Years ago, New Hope's baseball team went through an entire season undefeated and finished 43-0, causing the late, great baseball legend Boo Ferriss to gush.
“Forty-three and zero,” Ferriss said. “That's unbelievable! There are too many pebbles and rocks on a baseball field to do that. Sooner or later, you've got to get a bad hop.”
Presumably there are no pebbles on basketball floor, but that does not diminish what Mississippi State's women's basketball team has accomplished, winning 32 straight games before losing in the championship game of the Southeastern Conference Tournament to South Carolina.
When defeat finally came – 63-52 to South Carolina Sunday at Nashville – it actually made 32-0 seem all the more remarkable. That's because it showed how easily defeat can occur, especially when you play in a league such as the SEC where seven of the nation's top 25 teams reside. State's 32 victims included 11 with Top 25 RPIs. That's impressive.
Sunday's loss to South Carolina was due primarily to three contributing factors:
• Carolina is an outstanding team – a bad matchup for State – and is currently playing its best basketball.
• State's 6-foot, 7-inch double-double machine Teaira McCowan was called for two early fouls and spent 16 minutes plus on the bench. That was precisely when the Gamecocks built an 11-point halftime lead than ended up the final victory margin.
• State's normally proficient 3-point shooters – Blair Schaefer, Victoria Vivians and Roshundra Johnson – all had abysmal shooting nights. The trio went a combined 3 for 23 from behind the 3-point arc.
State probably could have survived with any two of those three factors present. The Bulldogs could not overcome all three.
Schaefer, a splendid basketball coach and teacher, said he had feared such a combination throughout the 32-game win streak.
“This has been my fear all year, for 32 games,” Schaefer said. “That on a night when we don't shoot it well, do we have enough against a Top 10 team to find a way to win a game.”
The answer was an emphatic: No.
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley hinted that she thought another factor might have been present.
“Sometimes when you come in undefeated it puts added pressure on you,” she said. “I don't know if that was the case today or not...”
It surely could have been. When State's normally sharp shooters missed those open three-pointers, the pressure seemed to build. One miss led to another, then another and then still more. And there was no security blanket inside the paint with McCowan on the bench.
For better or worse – and no Bulldog will says it was anything but worse – that pressure is now off as State prepares for the next chapter, the one that will be remembered most.
The Bulldogs must flush this one and prepare for the NCAA Tournament. State should remain a No. 1 seed and will surely play its first two games at home. The guess here is that State will be directed to the Kansas City regional as the top seed. We shall see.
That's where ESPN's Charley Creme had the Bulldogs after Sunday's loss, joining UConn, Louisville and Notre Dame as No. 1 seeds. (South Carolina was a No. 2).
The Bulldogs have earned that. Thirty-two straight wins, playing in the SEC, merits a No. 1 seed and a special place in Mississippi sports history.
Obviously, State wants far more...
Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is email@example.com.