Victoria Vivians could hardly see. The Mississippi State junior scurried across the court to shake free of USC's Sadie Edwards, who was face-guarding her in the second quarter of a game last month in Los Angeles.
But Vivians, a Mississippi native whose 5,745 high school career points rank second all time nationally, is accustomed to finding holes to escape defenders' hands.
The 6-foot-1 guard paused in the corner beyond the 3-point line, a step from colliding with courtside seats along the Galen Center's ruby-red sideline. With range out of most players' reach, she drained the trey, cool and easy, as if it were a layup, knotting the score.
She wasn't done.
Vivians caught the ball beyond the arc, this time in motion, aligning every muscle from her toes to her fingertips. With equal parts strength and balance, she levitated to pour in a shot.
"It's just automatic," said senior guard Dominique Dillingham, Vivians' roommate. "It's a knack she has. You either have it or you don't."
A scorer is born
The clock is set to four minutes. Teams split to maroon vs. white for a 5-on-5, full-court drill called "Bulldog." The goal? Make as many shots as possible, as quickly as possible. If a shot is drained at 14 seconds on the shot clock, for example, that team is awarded 14 points. No stopping. No puking. No excuse-making.
Vivians seizes the ball as if she's in the fourth quarter of an SEC title game, rallying her teammates -- we got this, keep pushing -- draining last-second bombs to win.
She always has to win.
"You gotta be confident in yourself. Without confidence, you're not going to be able to do anything," said Vivians, whose No. 4 Bulldogs join UConn as the only unbeaten teams in the nation. "When I go out, I'm just a motor. I just like to run and score."
The honorable mention All-American, who has helped guide Mississippi State to its highest ranking with averages of 17.3 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1.7 assists, attacks her goals full throttle.
By mid-October, when her friends, teammates and classmates prepared for Halloween, picking costumes, pumpkins and candy corn, Vivians had already arranged her Christmas tree. Tall and full, it sparkled in her apartment with dazzling white lights, shiny red bulbs and her favorite: glittery mini red and white Santa boots.
Two months early.
"She's always prepared," said another roommate, senior forward Breanna Richardson, who was shaking her head at a Snapchat of the immaculate tree.
Vivians -- who scored at least 20 points six times in a recent seven-game stretch -- is hard-wired that way on the court.
Two years ago, Bulldogs coach Vic Schaefer overheard his incoming freshmen talk before school. The top-20 group included Vivians, Blair Schaefer and Morgan William. They hadn't practiced a day yet.
"[Vivians] said, 'Coach, I'm here to play. I don't care who's here. I don't care who's been starting. I'm here to play,'" Vic Schaefer said.
"It wasn't a lack of respect for who was coming back, because we had players coming back at her position. She didn't care."
Vivians never feared anyone, not even the game itself. The ball was thrown in front of her as a little girl at a local church near her home in Carthage, Mississippi. Her brothers, cousins and other neighborhood boys whirled around her, shooting and driving to the basket, weaving up the court with in-and-out moves -- and she couldn't help but get swept up.
As the only girl and the smallest on the floor, she taught herself to shoot.
"She didn't want to lose," said Victoria's father, John Vivians. "She held her own pretty good. None of the girls in junior high could stay with her."
As an eighth-grader on varsity, Vivians saw coaches from Georgia, Alabama, Clemson, Texas and LSU huddled in the stands to scout Krista Donald, a junior from rival Lake High who'd eventually play for Georgia. Vivians stole the spotlight, dropping 30 points and grabbing 10 boards to lead Scott Central to victory.
"As soon as she came out of the locker room," former Scott Central coach Chad Harrison said, "everyone was like, 'Who's this kid? Who's this kid?'"
Another time, Scott Central was losing with five minutes left in the state final. As the opponent chewed time off the clock, Harrison fought that impulse coaches have when they sense the game is over on the inside but can't show it on the outside.
Then he remembered who was on the floor.
"You're talking about a beast. I've seen Victoria have beast performances against big-time teams," said Harrison, whose star posted 42 points, 11 boards and 6 steals to win.
Vivians went on to average 37 points as a high school sophomore, 39 as a junior and 46 as a senior, and she was heavily recruited across Division I programs. But she chose to stay in Mississippi, a manageable drive from her home in Carthage. "Only about 45 minutes, if you drive fast," said Vivians, who often has several dozen family members and friends at home games.
She wanted to do more than score -- she wanted to win.
"Her philosophy was, 'Why do I want to go where all these kids are going, where it's been done before?'" Harrison said. "'I want to do something in my state that's special and hasn't been done.'"
National championship mentality
It's Vivians' reminder to herself. Freshman year, more often than not, she'd pause for the 3-pointer. This season she's attacking the basket more, complementing her mid-range jumper and long bombs.
Wounded by the 60-point loss to Connecticut in the Sweet 16 last season, Vivians spent the offseason working on all types of shots to become a more versatile scorer; her ballhandling to become a better distributor; her footwork to become a quicker defender.
"You're talking about a beast. I've seen Victoria have beast performances against big-time teams." Chad Harrison, Victoria Vivians' former high school coach
The biggest change?
"I've seen her score 66 points with three people hanging on her in high school. The kid is very competitive. She wants to win," Vic Schaefer said. "But we've recruited other great players to be around her so she doesn't have to do it by herself."
The Bulldogs aim for a national championship with size (Richardson, Chinwe Okorie and Teaira McCowan), poise (floor general William), range in shooters (like Roshunda Johnson) and defense in hustlers (like Dillingham).
Back at unranked USC, a Women of Troy Classic championship was on the line. The game was close -- too close for a top-5 team. Southern Cal dictated momentum, as junior forward Kristen Simon continued to score inside, at one point flexing her muscles to the crowd.
Vivians had to counter. With an up-fake, she zoomed into the paint late in the first half, drawing two defenders. In a blink, she whipped a laser on the opposite block to Okorie, who converted the layup before the defense woke up.
"If I got a good shot, my teammate in the corner might have a great shot. She could be wide open," said Vivians, whose team escaped with a 76-72 win. "I try to turn a good shot into a great shot, so that pass gotta be right on point."