NCAAW
Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com 11d

Mississippi State beats Tennessee, makes big statement

Women's College Basketball, Mississippi State Bulldogs, Tennessee Lady Vols

STARKVILLE, Miss. -- It was two years ago and mostly different personnel on both sides. But the last time Tennessee visited Mississippi State has since haunted Bulldogs coach Vic Schaefer. That was late February 2017, and the Bulldogs' regular-season finale was a chance to win in front of a packed house here at Humphrey Coliseum for a share of the SEC regular-season title.

But Tennessee unloaded on them with, as Schaefer recalled it, "the WNBA version of the Lady Vols," winning 82-64. The season still turned out great for Mississippi State with the program's first trip to the Final Four and an epic victory there over UConn in the national semifinals. But that loss to Tennessee still ate at Schaefer and the Mississippi State upper-class players who experienced it.

Sunday at pregame breakfast, Schaefer reminded his Bulldogs of how good they could be if everyone was focused and on fire. And although it took until the fourth quarter for everything to fully click, Mississippi State became a roaring inferno. The Bulldogs won 91-63 -- handing Tennessee its worst SEC loss -- and showed they are in the mix of teams that could be headed to Tampa, Florida, in April.

This isn't news; the Bulldogs are No. 6 in the country, 22-1 overall and an SEC-best 10-0. But with so much other excitement and upsets throughout women's basketball, Mississippi State has been overlooked, sitting just barely outside of a No. 1 seed, according to espnW bracketologist Charlie Creme.

The way the Bulldogs looked Sunday, especially with their 30-point fourth quarter, it's clear they can play with anyone.

"I don't see any reason they can't compete for a [national] championship," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. "They're athletic players who specialize in a lot of different things, and I think they've got a great shot at it. You can't make a lot of mistakes against them, as you see."

Even as tough a taskmaster as Schaefer said, "It was a pretty good day. This was as good as we've played in a long time. And against a team I have so much respect for, and think they're really talented."

Tennessee had bounced back from a six-game losing streak to win its past three games heading into Mississippi State. But Sunday, the Lady Vols didn't have their leading scorer, guard Evina Westbrook, who had to sit out the game after missing a class. They got 29 points from Rennia Davis, and they trailed by just six with 2½ minutes left in the third quarter.

Then, led by both their guards and posts, the Bulldogs took off and left the Lady Vols in the dust. The 28-point margin tied for Tennessee's second-worst loss overall in program history, following a 31-point nonconference loss to Texas in 1984. The Lady Vols also lost by 28 to Notre Dame in 2012; their previous worst SEC loss was by 27 to Georgia in 2000.

That's how deadly Mississippi State can be; this went from a close game to a historic blowout in the final 12½ minutes.

It's just the fifth time the Bulldogs have defeated the Lady Vols. They didn't do that until 2016, ending an 0-36 streak of misery in a series that for nearly 30 years was as sure a thing as there was in the SEC. Even against the best of Mississippi State teams -- and there were some good ones -- Tennessee always won.

Now the Lady Vols (15-8 overall, 4-6 SEC) need to finish the season strong to avoid missing the NCAA tournament. They are the only team to play in every tournament since it began in 1982.

Much has changed in the SEC women's basketball power structure in recent years, and Mississippi State has been a big part of that. The Bulldogs won their first regular-season title last season at 16-0 and made a return trip to the Final Four, this time losing a heartbreaker to Notre Dame in the NCAA final.

They still haven't won an SEC tournament title -- they'll try for that in Greenville, South Carolina, next month -- and, of course, are still seeking their first national championship. But there were plenty of happy faces in the Hump on Sunday, as 10,021 fans celebrated with a team that -- despite losing four starters for the second year in a row -- is vying to be the nation's best.

Center Teaira McCowan led the way with 24 points, 15 rebounds and three blocked shots, and forward Anriel Howard also had a double-double with 16 points and 11 rebounds.

But the Bulldogs' guard play also was exceptional Sunday. Senior Jordan Danberry, who transferred to Mississippi State from Arkansas, averaged just 2.8 points and 9.6 minutes last season for the Bulldogs while playing behind then-seniors Victoria Vivians, Roshunda Johnson, Blair Schaefer and Morgan William. This year, Danberry is averaging 13.3 points and 26.5 minutes. Sunday, she scored 20 points on 10-of-15 shooting.

Fellow senior Jazzmun Holmes averaged 4.2 points and 14.8 minutes last season; this year, those numbers are 7.8 and 28.4, plus she has 119 assists to 26 turnovers. Holmes had seven points, eight assists and one turnover against the Lady Vols. Sophomores Bre'Amber Scott, with 13 points, and Andra Espinoza-Hunter, a transfer from UConn who had 11 points, also helped the perimeter attack.

The Bulldogs miss sophomore Chloe Bibby, who was their leading 3-point shooter before being lost for the season to a knee injury suffered Jan. 17. But they've been able to make up the slack.

No. 3 Oregon is the only team to beat Mississippi State this season; the Ducks pounded No. 11 Stanford 88-48 on Sunday. The Bulldogs finish the regular season by hosting Missouri, Vanderbilt and LSU and going to Texas A&M, Ole Miss and South Carolina. That matchup with the Gamecocks, on March 3 in Columbia, South Carolina, might decide the regular-season title.

There's still work to be done, but Mississippi State made a statement against the Lady Vols. Of course, you could say the Bulldogs have been doing that all year. But it was really loud Sunday.

"I'm very proud of my team," Schaefer said. "Man, they were special today."

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