Mississippi State's unexpected presence on the biggest stage in women's basketball might be a sign of good things to come for the program.
The Bulldogs burst into the ranks of the nation's elite with a run through the NCAA Tournament that ended with a 67-55 loss to South Carolina in the national championship game on Sunday. But the title game did little to take the shine off a breakthrough season, which included a stunning 66-64 overtime win over UConn on Saturday that broke the Huskies' record 111-game winning streak.
It was one of several impressive wins for a program that had never been past the Sweet 16 until this year. Mississippi State also knocked off Washington, which had the nation's leading scorer Kelsey Plum, and beat Baylor in the Elite Eight.
''These kids believed. They made it happen,'' Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said. ''We didn't get here by accident. We came through a really tough regional. These kids deserve all the credit for that.''
Now the Bulldogs are out to prove they weren't a one-year wonder.
Many of the team's best players during its 34-5 season will be back next season, including point guard Morgan William - who hit the buzzer-beater to knock off UConn - leading scorer Victoria Vivians and 6-foot-7 forward Teaira McCowan.
The Bulldogs do lose a solid senior class that includes Dominique Dillingham, Ketara Chapel, Breanna Richardson and Chinwe Okorie. All four were consistent contributors.
But nine players will be back. Schaefer said he made it clear in the postgame locker room that he doesn't expect much - if any - dropoff.
''You nine that are now sitting here, we're good enough,'' Schaefer said. ''I have a heck of a team coming back.''
It's been a quick rise for the Mississippi State program, which has usually been an afterthought in the Southeastern Conference until Schaefer arrived. He's built a powerhouse over five seasons, with 13, 22, 27 and 28 wins in his first four seasons before the program-record 34 wins this year.
The 56-year-old Schaefer has also made women's basketball a hot ticket in Starkville. Mississippi State averaged more than 6,600 fans at Humphrey Coliseum, including a sellout crowd of 10,500 when the Bulldogs hosted Tennessee during the regular season.
Schaefer's downhome personality has been a perfect fit for Mississippi State and his catchphrase of ''Praise the Lord and go `Dogs'' has become a standard greeting and farewell for fans. The coach also expects his players will be accessible to fans.
''Coach Schaefer has us up in the stands hugging babies, kissing babies, hugging people,'' Dillingham said. ''I think it's our family atmosphere and how personable we are with our fans. I think it's just grown every year.''
Now Schaefer and Mississippi State have to figure out a way to get past South Carolina in the SEC and at the national level. Schaefer is 0-9 against the Gamecocks and 124-42 against everyone else.
Schaefer said South Carolina was simply a little better than Mississippi State on Sunday.
''I'm disappointed we didn't play better for you,'' Schaefer said. ''It wasn't that we didn't try. Again, you have to take your hats off to South Carolina and Dawn Staley for a tremendous effort today.
''But we'll be back.''
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