It was evident early on that No. 1 seed Mississippi State wasn't going to have a problem beating No. 16 seed Southern in the first round of the women's NCAA tournament. But it was also clear that coach Vic Schaefer would have a problem if he saw any lack of hustle from his team in the Bulldogs' 103-46 victory in the Portland Regional.
With Mississippi State falling in the national championship the past two seasons, Schaefer has been obsessed with every detail of how the Bulldogs have played this year. He frequently relives the final three seconds of the national championship and Arike Ogunbowale's winning shot for Notre Dame.
And that's why he was upset -- even in the midst of a blowout victory -- when he thought senior Anriel Howard should have hustled down court after she'd fallen going for a rebound. Schaefer sent Howard briefly to the bench to get the point across not just to her, but to the whole team. She got the message, and so did everyone else.
Schaefer doesn't want any letup from the Bulldogs, who won the SEC regular-season and tournament titles, the latter for the first time in program history. Mississippi State lost just twice this season, at Oregon in December and at home against Missouri in February. That loss to the Tigers was a lesson for the Bulldogs, who were outworked by Missouri in that game. It hasn't happened since.
As Mississippi State center Teaira McCowan said after the Bulldogs won the SEC title, "We just know we can't give in. 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."
Southern, the SWAC champion, wasn't able to put up much of a fight. But Schaefer wasn't looking at the final score as much as specific things he wanted from his team. Like defense, as usual. The Bulldogs held the Jaguars to just five points in the third quarter, and for the game limited them to 27.8 percent shooting, while forcing 28 turnovers.
Four of the Bulldogs['starters scored in double figures; Howard (23 points, 12 rebounds) and McCowan (22, 16) both had double-doubles. Schaefer has been happy with the play of Jazzmun Holmes, whom he thinks is the most underrated point guard in the country. She had 10 points, seven rebounds and three assists, with no turnovers. Friday's 57-point win was Mississippi State's largest margin of victory in NCAA tournament history, beating their previous best of 45 points in a 2018 first-round matchup.
Next up for the Bulldogs is No. 9 seed Clemson, led by ACC coach of the year Amanda Butler. She knows Mississippi State well from her years coaching Florida. The Tigers beat No. 9 seed South Dakota 79-66 in the first round, but Mississippi State will present a much bigger challenge.
A challenge that Schaefer hopes is just as intense as he demands it always should be.