Mississippi State Bulldogs center Teaira McCowan (15) drives in for a layup against Arkansas Razorbacks guard Malica Monk (3) during the first half in the championship game of the women’s SEC Conference Tournament at Bon Secours Wellness Arena. Photo by: Joshua S. Kelly/USA TODAY Sports
March 11, 2019 11:47:50 AM
By Adam Minichino
GREENVILLE, S.C. -- Jazzmun Holmes and Teaira McCowan made sure Sunday the Mississippi State women's basketball team didn't have to leave the court at the final horn.
Powered by all-tournament performances by two of its senior leaders, No. 1 seed MSU erased three years of disappointment with a 101-70 victory against No. 10 seed Arkansas in the championship game of the Southeastern Conference tournament before a crowd of 5,771 at Bon Secours Wellness Arena.
"It's an unbelievable feeling," Holmes said when asked what it was like to stand on the championship podium as a sea of confetti engulfed her. "We played hard today. We played with poise. We played together. We came out with the victory."
With the win, Mississippi State (30-2) earns the SEC's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The Bulldogs will be at least a No. 2 seed and will be in the conversation for a No. 1 seed prior to the announcement of the pairings for the 64-team NCAA women's field at 6 p.m. Monday, March 18, on ESPN.
MSU claimed its first SEC tournament title in its fourth-straight appearance in the game, and fifth overall.
McCowan, the SEC Player and Defensive Player of the Year, tied for team-high scoring honors with 24 points. She also grabbed 14 rebounds for her third double-double of the weekend, and 27th of the season. It was her fifth-consecutive double-double. Her efforts earned her SEC tournament MVP honors. Holmes and graduate student Anriel Howard (11 points) joined McCowan and Missouri's Sophie Cunningham and Arkansas' Chelsea Dungee on the all-tournament team.
"It's way different," McCowan said when asked to describe the feeling of winning a championship, the way she and her teammates felt the last three seasons after losing to South Carolina. "We get to stay out in the confetti, play around, take pictures. The other time we were going to the locker room trying to figure out what we could have done, what we didn't do. It was just a good feeling being out there on the court with confetti falling."
McCowan added three assists and three blocked shots, as MSU dominated points in the paint (50-26) and had a 23-14 edge in points off turnovers (12 by Arkansas).
MSU coach Vic Schaefer praised McCowan on Saturday for allowing the Bulldogs "to play through her" in their victory against the Missouri Tigers. McCowan played a similar role against Arkansas (20-14), as she worked the basketball out quickly against double- and triple-teams. Her ability to find her teammates for open shots helped MSU record 28 assists, a record for SEC tournament game, and one shy of matching the team's season high.
"We just know we can't give in," McCowan said. "We know that coach always says, 'These games are about toughness.' Whether it's being mentally tough or physically tough, we still have to be in that moment. We still have to dial in, just find a way to fight through the game."
Holmes, who had 12 assists, which was one shy of her career high, fueled an offense that shot 40-for-64 from the field (62.5 percent). The Bulldogs also were 12-for-18 from 3-point range (season-high 66.7 percent) to tie their most makes in a game. It was the third time this season the Bulldogs shot better than 60 percent from the field.
Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors said MSU's attack begins with McCowan, who is the piece Schaefer has built around so well.
"You can't prepare for it," Neighbors said of McCowan, "unless (6-foot-11 Arkansas men's basketball player Daniel) Gafford would have flew down here with us. At our place, when we played them, Gafford walked by her and he looked at her and I asked him, 'Do you think you can guard her?' He said, 'Maybe not.'
"I don't think there is a way to guard her if they shot it they shoot it the way they shot it. She is so good at using the air time of the pass to seal your position, and you can't move her. She is going to move you for to six feet every time she touches you. She is an impossible matchup for 95 percent of college basketball teams out there."
Neighbors also praised the performance of Holmes, who understands what Schaefer wants and how he wants it done.
"Seventy points against those guys and only 12 turnovers feels like an at-a-boy, and you look up and you get beat by 31," Neighbors said. "That is just how good they are. He has them completely focused."
It was a satisfying ending for Schaefer, who had the net he cut down around his head for his post-game press conference. After staying up all night with his staff to prepare for the title game, Schaefer wasn't going to risk not having his team ready to end three years of frustration.
"I've been on this team all year about (toughness)," Schaefer said. "To see them get through today, I know they're going to feel good about it. Just about every day I'm reminding them how tough we aren't."
Follow Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
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