STARKVILLE, Miss. -- It's Saturday at suppertime, but Teaira McCowan holds off on the meal waiting for her. Instead, she sits in a quiet corner at Humphrey Coliseum after practice to discuss what has been a transformative four years at Mississippi State.
McCowan doesn't relish talking about herself, but she knows it's necessary. Just like pushing through the drudgery of individual workouts in the offseason. Or holding back the emotion that wants to burst out after she blocks a shot, just to make sure she doesn't pick up a technical.
She's the Bulldogs' star, the SEC player of the year, the SEC tournament MVP, an espnW first-team All-American, an expected WNBA draft-lottery pick in April. She's averaging 17.8 points and 13.5 rebounds for the Bulldogs, the No. 1 seed in the Portland Regional in the women's NCAA tournament. Mississippi State has lost in the national championship game the past two years, and McCowan was a key factor in the Bulldogs getting that far.
Now as a senior, she's even more the focus. So she does all the interviews, even though McCowan would rather photo bomb her coaches and teammates during theirs, showing a delightfully mischievous side of her personality.
Kids in Starkville have seen another side. As part of her major in human development and family studies, this semester McCowan is an intern at the Emerson Family Resource Center, which provides programs from adult education to child care. She also gave a motivational speech to Starkville High School about the importance of finishing your education.
This is the same young woman who was once so self-conscious about her height, she would come home from school and hide in her room. Now the 6-foot-7 McCowan isn't afraid to be the center of attention.
"The biggest thing she talked about was her 'why' theory; she told the students to really think about why they were doing things," said Nakesha Weaver, program manager of Project Care at the Emerson Center and one of McCowan's internship supervisors. "What's your why? When you find out your why, you'll find out where you're supposed to be in life."
McCowan speaks from the heart. She has asked herself the same question. She didn't grow up dreaming of becoming a basketball player. Instead, she grew so tall -- she was 6-5 in eighth grade -- she felt the sport almost demanded that she play.
Learning to like it -- then love it -- has taken time.
"She didn't really want to play basketball at first, but I said, 'Come on and try it,'" said McCowan's mother, Tracy Nunn. "Then she began to accept it. There were still times she didn't want to play, but I told her she wasn't a person to give up."
Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer has watched McCowan's resolve develop.
"She's the most improved player I've ever coached from where she was when she got here to where she is now," Schaefer said. "Her growth, on and off the court, and her development as a basketball player. She's taught me patience. She's emotional like her head coach, and I have a real appreciation for her because of that."
Finding a new home
McCowan is from Brenham, Texas, and has a strong bond with Mississippi State assistant Johnnie Harris. She first met McCowan when she was an assistant with Schaefer at Texas A&M, then both coaches left for Mississippi State before the 2012-13 season.
McCowan and her mother visited Starkville, and Nunn thought it was a perfect fit, despite a nine-hour drive from their home.
"So when she finally made the decision," Nunn said, "I think I cried more than she did."
Early in McCowan's time at Mississippi State, the coaching staff asked Nunn to visit. They didn't want McCowan to go home; they feared she wouldn't return. But gradually, McCowan settled in. She came off the bench as a freshman, averaging 6.6 points and 5.6 rebounds, all raw talent.
"In high school, when you're a good player, nobody really disciplines you," McCowan said. "You come here to a program with real structure, it's different and, at first, kind of hard. Then it's about learning the ropes. I have adjusted."
Her sophomore season, she averaged 8.7 PPG and 7.1 RPG, and moved into the starting lineup in the postseason. Mississippi State reached the program's first Final Four, ending UConn's 111-game winning streak in the semifinals before falling to South Carolina in the national championship game.
McCowan told Harris she wanted to up the ante.
"She was ready, and knew it was her time," Harris said. "She took her strength and conditioning, and everything, more seriously. She wanted to be an All-American.
"I said, 'There's no days off; you've got to change your mindset.' It was pushing her past what she thought her limits were."
The true Teaira blossomed her junior season. It was the funny things she did, the posturing for the camera and smoothing her eyebrows move that people loved. It was her relentlessness on the boards, her dominant shot-blocking, her ability to finish.
It was also her stamina; she played 30.5 minutes per game, while averaging 18.2 points and 13.9 rebounds. That was put the test at the Final Four, where McCowan played all 45 minutes in an overtime victory against Louisville in the semifinals. She got a Final Four-record 25 rebounds along with 21 points.
But the NCAA title game ended in heartbreak. McCowan, worn down after the Louisville battle and pushed away from her sweet spots by Notre Dame's defense, went 7-of-19 from the field. She had 18 points and 17 rebounds, fouling out with 3 seconds left. She watched from the bench as Arike Ogunbowale's 3-pointer won the title for the Irish.
Afterward, McCowan -- the lone starter returning for this season -- quietly made a vow in the Mississippi State locker room: She would lead the Bulldogs back as a senior.
"It fueled me," McCowan said of the 61-58 loss to the Irish. "I said, 'I'm going to have my team ready.' I just wanted it so bad. Then it was like watching it slip away. It still bugs me."
Blossoming of person and player
This season, the Bulldogs have lost just twice: at Oregon in December, and in an upset at home to Missouri in February. McCowan struggled against the Tigers, going 4-of-11 from the field.
But against Missouri in the SEC tournament semifinals, McCowan had 27 points and 16 rebounds. Against Arkansas in the final, she had 24 and 14, and celebrated Mississippi State's first SEC tournament title.
There's still a lot of work to do. Mississippi State seeks six more victories for the grand prize, an NCAA title. McCowan then will face a pro future, which she acknowledges she hasn't thought about much. Nunn has.
"That will be my next crying phase with her," Nunn said. "Then I'll have to let her go to somewhere else, and we don't know how far it's going to be. Yes, she's still my little girl."
Schaefer doesn't dwell much on McCowan's departure, either, but thinks she's ready for pro ball.
"She really knows the game, and is thinking ahead," Schaefer said. "She has great feet defensively; she will surprise people with how well she can defend out on the perimeter.
"At the same time, they're going to be surprised with what she can do offensively facing the rim. She hasn't done that a lot for us, but the kid's got a beautiful shot."
The basketball growth is just part of McCowan's journey. What surprised people at the Emerson Center was how gentle McCowan was. She was so at-ease around children, so determined to fulfill each task she was assigned. In February, she decorated a bulletin board there for Black History Month, taking pains to get it just how she wanted it. The center has family nights, and it was McCowan's idea to do a "slime" night and a cake-decorating night.
The kids typically view McCowan as their friend. It's the parents who are sometimes in awe that a prominent Mississippi State athlete is working with them.
"Some people ask me about basketball; I signed a guy's shoes the other day," McCowan said. "But most of the time, it's like this can be an escape from basketball."
McCowan has also been heavily involved in a project to promote organizations to donate diapers, which then are distributed to needy families. Many of those who come to the center, which is part of the Starkville Oktibbeha Consolidated School District, are dealing with poverty and trying to better their lives.
Dr. Joan Butler, director of family center programs, said McCowan is "delightful."
"On the court, you see her being very competitive. I love when she gives that frown when she doesn't like a call or something. But we do not see that side of her at all," Dr. Butler said. "She comes into our setting, and is kind, embracing and developing personal relationships with individuals. She knows the more you end up giving, you find out more about yourself."
McCowan has grown into the person Harris envisioned way back when she first got to know her as a junior high kid who was so unsure of herself. McCowan will leave as one of Mississippi State's most accomplished athletes: a program-changer, but also a changed person.
"When she came here, she wasn't comfortable. She knew people were looking at her, and in her mind, it was not positive," Harris said. "It was not, 'They're staring at me because they know me and they like me.' It was, 'They're staring because I'm big.'
"But I think she's grown to know now, 'These people here love me.' That's made her comfortable, knowing she's got all these people behind her."