Post matchup could determine Baylor-Mississippi St. winner
By CLIFF BRUNT
The Associated Press
OKLAHOMA CITY — For one of the rare times in their careers, Mississippi State’s Teaira McCowan and Baylor’s Kalani Brown will be at eye level with an opponent.
Whichever 6-foot-7 center gets the best of the matchup today could vault their team into the Final Four.
McCowan got Brown’s attention by scoring 20 of her career-high 26 points in the fourth quarter of Mississippi State’s Sweet 16 win over Washington on Friday.
“Big, strong, big in the post,” Brown said. “Got to block her out and do my work early or get punished. You can’t let her get deep. Just do my work early, run the floor hard.”
Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer inserted McCowan into the starting lineup in place of Chinwe Okorie at the start of the NCAA Tournament, and she has been dominant. Schaefer said he kept McCowan in a reserve role for most of the season because he wanted her to earn the Southeastern Conference’s sixth woman of the year this season. She earned the honor, and Schaefer said having that goal helped her develop.
“For young kids, sometimes that’s what they need,” he said. “They need a vision. They need someone to point them in the right direction. She went and got it.”
Brown is Baylor’s leading scorer and rebounder for the season with 15.1 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, and she shoots 67 percent from the field. McCowan said she has faced Brown on the AAU circuit and knows she’s in for a tough night.
“I think it’s just going to be size going against size,” McCowan said. “It’s going to be a great matchup.”
Baylor’s backups post players are formidable, too, with 6-4 Beatrice Mompremier, 6-4 Lauren Cox and 6-3 Khadijah Cave having added solid contributions throughout the season. The depth has allowed Baylor to feature big lineups and still push the pace — Baylor ranks second nationally with 89.6 points per game.
Schaefer watched Baylor’s interior players dominate in a 97-63 win over Louisville on Friday night.
“Seeing them yesterday in person was really impressive,” he said. “When you scout in person, the thing that the film doesn’t show is quickness, speed, how truly big someone is. Yesterday I got that up close and in person.”
Baylor is trying to get to the Final Four for the first time since winning the national title in 2012, while Mississippi State will try to make it for the first time.
BULLDOG: Schaefer and his players talked several times about a practice game called Bulldog. It’s a four-minute game with a 24-second shot clock. When a team scores, the basket is worth the number of seconds left on the shot clock.
“You’re trying to score as fast and as quick as you can, get up and down, really have a fast-paced tempo,” he said.
Schaefer said it helped when the Bulldogs got behind Washington before pulling away for a 75-64 win.
“I think you saw last night in the second and fourth quarter … we got down, tempo got sped up,” he said. “We started playing good. We started doing some good things.”
YOUNG SCHAEFER: Mississippi State’s Blair Schaefer, the coach’s daughter, averaged just over five points per game this season. She’s averaging 16.3 in the NCAA Tournament while shooting 50 percent from 3-point range.
“She’s prepared all her life for this moment,” coach Schaefer said. “There’s no moment too big for her. She’s shooting the ball well. If y’all want to start trying to figure things out, figure out that this time of year, it’s about getting hot.”
Baylor coach Kim Mulkey coached daughter Makenzie and respects how Schaefer has coached his.
“I just have a special place in my heart for coaches who can coach their own kids, do it fairly, and win,” she said. “He’s doing that with his child.”
NINA DAVIS: Baylor’s athletic forward took a more secondary role this season, but she’s back in the forefront now.
The 5-foot-11 senior was the Big 12 player of the year in 2015 as a sophomore, and was All-Big 12 her first three years before dropping to the second team this season.
She’s back to her old ways. During the NCAA Tournament, she leads Baylor in scoring (16.7 per game) and is third in rebounding (6.3).
Davis has accepted that her role can change from day to day.
“Whatever the team needs me to be,” she said. “Whether that’s to get the rebounds, to score, to play defense, to push the ball in transition — really just being the overall team player, just helping them in any way they need at that time.”
BAYLOR’S SHOOTERS: Baylor’s post players get much of the attention, but Mulkey pointed out that Baylor leads the nation in 3-point shooting percentage. After Friday’s games, the Lady Bears were shooting 40.5 percent from beyond the arc as a team.
Alexis Prince and Alexis Jones lead the way with 60 3-pointers apiece. Kristy Wallace has 36 and Natalie Chou has 33.