It finally happened: Mississippi State beat Tennessee in women's basketball. In Starkville, Mississippi, this is a major "Stop the presses!" moment. Even in the age of the Internet.
Which we weren't in way back when these teams' series began, in 1986. That was so long ago, the Lady Vols had not even won their first NCAA title yet. That came in 1987.
But Tennessee's 36-0, three-decade streak against the Bulldogs ended with Mississippi State's 65-63 overtime victory Thursday at Humphrey Coliseum. The Bulldogs trailed by 12 points going into the fourth quarter, and it looked like the Lady Vols were going to continue their mastery over Mississippi State -- even in a season in which so many things have seemed to go awry for Tennessee.
However, the Bulldogs took over in the fourth quarter, which turned into Exhibit A of Tennessee's worst offensive nightmares this season. Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer, who really doesn't like playing zone, realized it could be effective in the fourth quarter. And was it ever: The Lady Vols scored just three points in those 10 minutes -- yes, three. Yikes.
And now the question is: Will Tennessee's 31-year stay in the rankings end when The Associated Press poll comes out on Monday? Tennessee, which fell to 12-8 with the loss, is currently ranked No. 19. The last time the Lady Vols weren't in The Associated Press poll was a stretch from early January to mid-February of 1985. They re-entered the rankings in week 14 of the poll that season, and have been there ever since, 546 weeks.
Tennessee for so many years was a team that always seemed to slam the door shut on teams when they had them down. But this time, the Lady Vols left it open for the Bulldogs to come back.
Credit has to go Mississippi State for that. Sunday, in front of the biggest home crowd they've ever had -- 10,626 -- the Bulldogs put a scare into undefeated and second-ranked South Carolina, but fell 57-51.
Going into Thursday's game at The Hump, the Bulldogs kept hearing about the 0-36 stuff. Yet, actually, Mississippi State was the favored team entering this game; the Bulldogs were ranked higher at No. 13 and they were at home, which has become a real advantage with their fan support. Furthermore, Tennessee's leading scorer, Diamond DeShields, who has been hobbled by an ankle injury, wasn't in the starting lineup.
Still, Tennessee played pretty darn well for three quarters, even with no points from DeShields. And then ... well, this Lady Vols squad just doesn't seem to have any confidence about closing out games. So potential victories keep getting away from them. It happened again Thursday, as the offense went dreadfully dry and the Bulldogs outscored the Lady Vols 15-3 in the final quarter.
Going into overtime, the momentum was all with Mississippi State, and the Bulldogs were able to close it out and celebrate. They beat Tennessee on the boards 46-42, and that included 20 offensive rebounds. Mississippi State shot just 32.9 percent from the field, and 18.8 percent (3 of 16) from 3-point range. Without the second chances the Bulldogs gave themselves, they couldn't have won this game.
But they pounded the offensive boards, and it saved them. On one key possession in the fourth quarter, they got three offensive rebounds, ultimately leading to a Victoria Vivians' basket. That cut Tennessee's lead to six with 5 minutes, 35 seconds left, and you just had the sense then that this game was going to end badly for the Lady Vols.
Mississippi State got a huge offensive lift from one of its best defensive players, Dominique Dillingham, who finished with 14 points. Vivians struggled against Tennessee's defense, shooting just 4-of-16, but still had 14 points. Point guard Morgan William also had a tough time shooting, at 4-of-17, but she had 11 points and seven assists.
It was one of the more special nights in Mississippi State women's basketball history, a program that has become a contender under Schaefer, who's in his fourth season in Starkville. Mississippi State is now 18-4 overall and 5-3 in the brutal SEC.
It was another painful emotional punch in the gut for Tennessee. The Lady Vols are playing hard and trying to find their way, but they keep confronting the reality that, especially with DeShields not close to 100 percent physically, their offense is a liability. Jordan Reynolds led the Lady Vols with 15 points; DeShields scored just one basket, which came in overtime. In the last 6½ minutes of the critical fourth quarter, Tennessee scored just one point.
If Tennessee somehow loses to Alabama -- the Tide's only wins over the Lady Vols came in another era, 1981 and '84 -- then it would seems certain the Orange would fall from the rankings. If Tennessee wins, then ... we'll see. It's going to be close. These are difficult times in Knoxville.
What happened Thursday was a historical event, certainly, in the annals of SEC women's basketball. Through mostly ups, and a few downs, an absolute constant for Tennessee was beating the Bulldogs. Most of the games in this series really weren't even that close; the Lady Vols won by double digits 27 times. Including by 65 points in 1997, a year when Tennessee lost 10 games yet won the national championship.
The most vexing period for the Bulldogs was 2000-04, during the careers of four-time All-American LaToya Thomas and Tan White, both of whom became WNBA players. Thomas, in fact, was the No. 1 draft pick in 2003.
During this stretch, Mississippi State lost by single digits in six of eight games against Tennessee. Including the closest the Bulldogs ever got -- until Thursday, that is. That was in the semifinals of the 2003 SEC tournament, when Tennessee's Kara Lawson hit a buzzer-beater to top Mississippi State 76-75.
It just seemed like -- even with the best player in program history -- it was impossible for the Bulldogs to beat Tennessee.
Now, you might say that it was hard for almost everyone to top the Lady Vols for much of their history, and that's correct. But there was just something that Mississippi State couldn't get past.
However, they have now. The Bulldogs had to work overtime to do it, but the zero in their record against Tennessee is, at last, gone.