Rick Cleveland

Mississippi State women peaking at the right time for a Final Four run

When it comes to tournament basketball – or baseball, or football, for that matter – it’s all about peaking at the right time if you are going to win championships. It’s about playing your best when it counts most. In a way, it’s about saving your best for last.

The Mississippi State women, headed to a second straight Final Four, appear to be doing just that. Their collective performance at Kansas City – convincing victories over a pair of really good teams – was of masterpiece quality. They are playing just about as well as they can play headed to Columbus and a chance to do what they couldn’t quite do a year ago.

They will have to be at their absolute best to do what comes next. They are, without question, quite capable of winning it all.

And, frankly, I wasn’t so sure about that just three weeks ago – not after the cold-shooting Bulldogs were toppled by South Carolina 62-51 in the championship game of the Southeastern Conference Tournament.

But since that setback, State recharged batteries for a week, got their marching orders from the NCAA selection committee and then have put on a four-game clinic of how you play this game. The now 36-1 Bulldogs have trounced Nicholls 95-50, Oklahoma State 71-56, North Carolina State 71-57 and UCLA 89-73. Those last three are all high quality women’s basketball teams and State whipped them all, comfortably.

If that’s not peaking, then I am not sure what is.

But here’s the deal: Once you reach this point, everybody is peaking or they wouldn’t be here.

Take Louisville, the team State plays next. In the NCAA Tournament, the 36-2 Cardinals have whacked four straight teams by an average margin of 27 points per game. In the Sweet 16, they obliterated perennial powerhouse Stanford 86-59. In the Elite 8, they swamped Oregon State 76-43. Nobody – well, nobody except UConn – is supposed to win by those kinds of margins against that kind of competition.

The Cardinals are a lot like State in this respect: They have a lot of star power, but they have won 36 games mostly because of how well they play defense. You look over their game results and you see so many games in which opponents have been limited to 60 or fewer points.

You know how well Mississippi State plays defense? Bulldogs opponents have shot a paltry 39 percent from the floor. Louisville has been even better. Cardinals opponents have shot 37.3 percent from the field this year. State forces 18.6 turnovers a game, and Louisville is right behind at 17 per game.

Both these teams guard as if their lives depend on it. Baskets will come at a premium.

What Louisville did to Stanford is a case in point. Stanford is coached by Tara VanDerveer, who guided that memorable 1996 U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal in Atlanta. She’s a Hall of Fame coach with an amazing record – and, now, a healthy respect for Louisville.

“They have a combination of athleticism, aggressiveness and size,” VanDerveer said of the Cardinals. “They really extended their defense on us, and I think we – intellectually, we knew that was going to happen, but you can’t – it’s hard to kind of talk to people about this is what’s going to happen. And when it happens, it’s a little bit different.”

In other words, you prepare and prepare for the Louisville’s defensive pressure – and then it still suffocates you.

Survive that one, and then State would play another giant.

That’s what happens when you reach this point. They are all giants.

State, especially when it is playing at peak form, is a giant, as well.

Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.