South Carolina women’s basketball enters this Monday’s matchup at 7 p.m. against No. 2 Mississippi State as the underdog. But for Bulldogs fans, it’s still the biggest game of the year by far.
It’s not all that surprising, given that the No. 7 Gamecocks have won 11 straight against MSU, including three wins last season that culminated in a historic national title game.
As a result, Mississippi State has been pumping up the Feb. 5 rematch for weeks now. The game in Starkville, Mississippi, sold out nearly two weeks in advance, a first in program history, and all the hype has not escaped South Carolina’s attention.
“They have a sellout, they’ve been tweeting at us, about us for the past month, and here it is, and now we gotta play,” USC coach Dawn Staley said Sunday. “And I’m looking forward to the challenge of being in an environment that appreciates women’s basketball. I like Mississippi State in the (Humphrey Coliseum). I hope our players are prepared to play in an NCAA-type game.”
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The reference to tweets sent a month ago is no joke — on Jan. 5, Mississippi State’s Twitter account posted a hype video telling fans, “We need you back. We need you loud. We need you there.”
It’s not as though this game isn’t huge for South Carolina either: In order to have any chance at winning its fifth consecutive SEC regular season title, the Gamecocks have to upset MSU on its home floor, just four days after losing to No. 1 UConn at home.
“After the Connecticut loss in the locker room we talked a little bit about,” championships and titles, Staley said. “But not in preparation (for Mississippi State). I think they understand it’s an SEC game on the road, and I don’t want to put much pressure on them to feel like we gotta win. We do gotta win, though, to give us a shot at least at a regular season championship.”
Mississippi State is off to its best start in school history, and every game this year, coach Vic Schaefer has trotted out the same starting lineup: four guards, including star Victoria Vivians, and 6-foot-7 center Teaira McCowan. It’s a starting five strategy that’s mighty familiar to Staley.
“They’re doing something that we did last year by going small and playing Vivians at the four, and it’s a mismatch for our post players for sure, but we gotta try to get it back on the other side and limit the amount of 3-point baskets she gets against our bigs,” Staley said.
Starting forwards A’ja Wilson and Alexis Jennings will be tasked with either containing McCowan, who is enjoying a breakout season, averaging 19.9 points and 12.8 rebounds per game, or Vivians, a crafty All-American guard who shoots 39 percent from 3.
The play of guards Tyasha Harris and Doniyah Cliney will be key to helping the bigs out, Staley said.
“That’s been key for us all year long, is being able to contain penetration,” Staley said. “They’re going to come, come in waves, we gotta do our job to stay in front of them, stay matched up as much as possible.”
“That’s a key to our scout (report) is just to stay between them and the basket and limit their touches,” Harris said.
With Bianca Cuevas-Moore still out for the year with an ACL injury, South Carolina cannot be described as totally healthy, but the Gamecocks are as healed up as they’ve been in quite some time.
Staley announced Sunday that redshirt senior guard Lindsey Spann will play against Mississippi State after sitting out the last four games with a knee injury. Spann had previously missed five other games earlier this season with another knee injury.
That means USC will dress 11 players to compete against the Bulldogs, the first time it has done that since it played Auburn on Jan. 11, nearly four weeks ago.