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First-rate in-state senior stars are cornerstones in UCLA vs. Mississippi State Elite Eight clash

Victoria Vivians has been part of the greatest era in Mississippi State basketball history. Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Of course, other programs beckoned. For UCLA's Monique Billings and Jordin Canada, both from greater Los Angeles, there were programs on the other side of the country such as UConn and Tennessee who wanted them to move. For Mississippi State's Victoria Vivians, whose hometown of Carthage, Mississippi, is about 75 miles southwest of the Bulldogs' Starkville campus, the choices were mainly in the South, but many outside her state.

All three seniors stayed close to home, and now their teams will play for a trip to the Women's Final Four. No. 1 seed Mississippi State meets No. 3 UCLA in the Kansas City Regional final on Sunday (ESPN, 7:30 p.m. ET).

The Bulldogs had never been to the Women's Final Four until last season, when they fell to South Carolina in the championship game. UCLA won the 1978 AIAW title, but since the NCAA tournament era began in 1982, the Bruins had been to just one Elite Eight (1999) until now.

"I think I knew deep down that I wanted to say in L.A.," said Canada, whose 22 points and eight assists led the Bruins past No. 2 seed Texas 84-75 in Friday's semifinals. "Of course, you can get so overwhelmed by other programs with a lot of success wanting to recruit you. But I knew I wanted my family and friends to come see me play, and I wanted to represent where I came from."

Vivians, who had 14 points in the Bulldogs' 71-57 victory Friday over No. 4 seed NC State, felt pretty much the same way. She was strongly recruited by schools such as Louisville and Kentucky, and she knew her father, a truck driver, could arrange his routes to let him get to games at those places. But she also thought about how important it was to be close to her parents and other relatives, and also what she could mean to a program like Mississippi State.

"I knew I wouldn't miss out on anything with my family," she said. "It means a lot, and I'm glad I stayed home and bought into what coach [Vic] Schaefer was saying. I feel like, from the start to the finish, we've improved so much with our fan base, our basketball and everything around the program."

There is, obviously, an enormous contrast between these locations. Mississippi has a population of roughly 3 million people. There are 4 million alone in Los Angeles proper, with about 18.6 million in greater L.A. And California, where all five of UCLA's starters (including another senior, Kelli Hayes) and coach Cori Close are from, is the most populated state of the United States, at about 39.5 million people.

There are no major professional sports teams in Mississippi; Los Angeles refers to itself as the "entertainment capital of the world," which includes all its pro sports. So while the home recruiting ground is richer for UCLA, it's easier to get attention in Mississippi.

The Bulldogs averaged 7,439 fans for their home games this season, including crowds of roughly 10,000 for both their NCAA tournament games at Humphrey Coliseum. The Bruins averaged 3,249 at home, with a season high of 9,263 for their game against UConn on Nov. 21. In the midst of March Madness, the Bruins had a more difficult time drawing for their NCAA tournament games, getting 2,304 for a first-round game on a Saturday and 1,860 for the second round on a Monday.

Close, who played at UC Santa Barbara and was an assistant there, at UCLA and Florida State before taking over the Bruins in 2011, has approached increasing her team's fan base realistically.

"I think it has to be bigger than entertainment, and that's how we've tried to do it," Close said. "We're trying to build a sincere and genuine engagement with our fans, and I think that's why we've been so consistently at about 20 percent improvement every year in attendance. They are truly engaged in the journey of these young women."

And playing in Pauley Pavilion, a shrine to legendary UCLA men's coach John Wooden, who was a mentor to Close, is important to the Bruins players as well.

"I was sold on the dream that Coach Cori and her staff had," said Billings, who is from Corona, California, which she says in good traffic is about 45 minutes from campus. "But when I first came to college, I didn't have an understanding of UCLA's legacy as an athletic program, or know that much about John Wooden. And now, I really do. Being on that stage is something I've grown into and learned to appreciate over the years."

UCLA and other California teams have, in the past, had some trouble keeping their best high school girls players on the West Coast. But that's changed, with Canada and Billings just two examples.

"I think their families deserve a lot of credit," Close said. "Also, I've got to give credit to the Pac-12 Network ... I think that's been a major piece of the exposure we can promise recruits."

The SEC Network has been good for the Bulldogs, too. Mississippi State had been to the NCAA tournament six times before Schaefer took over as coach in 2012, making it to the Sweet 16 just once. Mississippi State was 13-17 in Schaefer's first season and 22-14 with a WNIT berth in his second. Then Vivians, who was the state's all-time scoring leader in high school with 5,745 points (which included her playing varsity as an eighth-grader), came to Starkville.

Vivians, who is averaging 19.5 points and 6.1 rebounds, has helped the Bulldogs reach four consecutive NCAA tournaments, highlighted by beating overall No. 1 seed UConn in the national semifinals last season.

"Victoria was a huge part of what we've done because she gave us credibility," Schaefer said. "When we first got there and you're talking a vision ... it sometimes can be a challenge.

"She not only changed our program, she obviously impacted my career, both professionally as well as personally. Just a wonderful kid."

There are four other Mississippi natives on the Bulldogs roster, plus Schaefer's daughter, Blair -- who was born in Texas and lived there and in Arkansas growing up, but finished high school in Starkville.

Most of the rest of the team is from other Southern states: Alabama, Arkansas, Texas and Florida. The two outliers are Zion Campbell from Washington, D.C., and Chloe Bibby from Australia. But this is a program that reflects its location and has inspired a lot of admiration from those in Mississippi. Yeah, even a few Ole Miss fans might admit to kind of liking this group.

"I think people have no idea about the great state of Mississippi and what a tremendous place it is," Schaefer said. "The people in that state are what make it so special. I've enjoyed it. It's been fun building it at Mississippi State."