Regional foes pose challenges for MSU

Published 7:58 am Saturday, March 17, 2018

STARKVILLE (AP) — Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer is concerned that the opening weekend of the women’s NCAA Tournament might be more difficult than many anticipate.

He’s not being paranoid: The past few months provide proof.

The No. 1 seed Bulldogs (32-1) will be an overwhelming favorite in Saturday’s opening round game against No. 16 Nicholls State (19-13), but the potential second-round matchups provide plenty of intrigue. No. 8 Syracuse (22-8) and No. 9 Oklahoma State (20-10) — which face each other on Saturday — both played close games against Mississippi State during non-conference play.

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“If we’re fortunate enough to win tomorrow night, we’re going to have to play one of those teams,” Schaefer said. “It will not be an easy task. It will be a very difficult opponent and it’s going to be someone our kids will have to be ready to play against.”

Mississippi State beat Oklahoma State 79-76 in Starkville on Dec. 3. That was the smallest margin of victory for the Bulldogs during their 32-game winning streak to start the season.

The Bulldogs beat Syracuse 76-65 in Las Vegas on Dec. 21. Syracuse made just six 3-pointers in that game, but has shown the ability to put points on the scoreboard in a hurry. The Orange hit 20 3-pointers against North Carolina last month.

Syracuse has won five of six games coming into the tournament, including a 68-65 win over nationally-ranked Duke, and the Orange don’t sound much like a team that’s just happy to be in the Big Dance.

“A lot of people make these low-hanging fruit goals you know you can reach,” Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman said. “We don’t do that. My dreams scare me — they really do.”

Syracuse is led by guard Tiana Mangakahia, who is averaging 17.8 points and 9.9 assists per game during her first season with the program. She scored a career-best 44 points against Georgia Tech and set the program record for assists in a single game with 17 against Vanderbilt.

“Tiana saved our season. We had to replace one of the best point guards in the country for the past two years and Tiana has come in right away and stabilized this program,” Hillsman said.

Oklahoma State has had a good season and at one point pushed up to No. 19 in the national rankings. But the Cowgirls have struggled over the past few weeks, losing four of their past six games.

“I think it’s important this time of year to realize what your identity is. Our identity is balance, our identity is using our post player inside and letting our point guard play,” Oklahoma State coach Jim Littell said.

2:30 p.m. – Syracuse vs. Oklahoma State
5 p.m. ESPN2 – Nicholls State vs. Mississippi State
Time TBA – Saturday winners