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Third try: Mississippi St aims for title after close calls

(AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

By DAVID BRANDT

AP Sports Writer

STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) Mississippi State has earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year and is now trying to embark on a third straight trip to the national championship game.

But before that starts, coach Vic Schaefer would like to take just one minute to reflect.

"I don't think people realize how hard it is to do what we've done," Schaefer said.

Mississippi State's been so good the last few years it's easy to forget this was a fairly mediocre program as recently as 2013, when the Bulldogs finished with a 13-17 record. That was Schaefer's first season in Starkville and since then he's slowly built a powerhouse that's won two straight SEC regular-season titles and the most recent SEC Tournament title .

Now the Bulldogs are trying for the ultimate goal: winning the program's first national title. Mississippi State lost its previous national championship games against South Carolina in 2017 and a heartbreaker to Notre Dame in 2018.

Mississippi State hopes to have another chance at a title in a few weeks. The journey begins on Friday night when Mississippi State (30-2) hosts No. 16 seed Southern (20-12) in what's expected to be a sold out Humphrey Coliseum.

As Mississippi State's success has increased over the past several years, so have the crowds. The program's averaged more than 8,200 fans per game this season.

"Just seeing the crowd grow over the course of my freshman year to now, it's been a big jump," Mississippi State forward Teaira McCowan said. "This year, every game's almost sold out. So we're just putting on a show each and every night. It's special."

The Jaguars won the Southwestern Athletic Conference Tournament to earn an automatic bid and earn the right to face the Bulldogs.

No. 8 South Dakota (28-5) will face No. 9 Clemson (19-12) in Friday's other first-round game. The Coyotes earned an at-large bid out of the Summit League while Clemson finished a surprising seventh in the Atlantic Coast Conference to earn its first bid to the NCAA Tournament since 2002.

South Dakota's at-large bid was the first ever for a team from the Summit. The Coyotes are averaging more than 77 points per game while Clemson is particularly good on defense and led the ACC in steals.

"We look forward to two completely different styles of basketball and see what our young ladies can do," South Dakota coach Dawn Plitzuweit said.

Here are a few more things to watch in Starkville during the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament:

BUTLER'S RETURN

Clemson coach Amanda Butler was named the ACC Coach of the Year in her first season with the program after leading a remarkable turnaround . The Tigers finished with nine wins in the ACC this season, which equaled the total from the last five seasons combined. The success comes after Butler was fired from Florida in 2017 after 10 seasons.

Said Butler: "On the personal front, I'm blessed beyond measure. It's the only way I can explain it. Not just the opportunity to be coaching women's basketball again, or to be in the NCAA Tournament, but to be doing it at Clemson University."

DUFFY'S HEALTH

South Dakota's success in this weekend might depend on the health of Ciara Duffy. The All-Summit League guard injured her left ankle in the first quarter of the conference tournament finals against South Dakota State, which the Coyotes lost 83-71. She said she'll be ready for Friday's game.

"This has always been our goal and it's the first time any of us have gotten to do this. There's not much that's going to keep me from playing in this game," Duffy said. "Our trainer has done an awesome job with rehab, getting the swelling down and the bruising out."

Duffy is averaging a team-high 14.8 points per game and shooting nearly 41 percent from 3-point range.

CLEANING THE BOARDS

Mississippi State is one of the nation's best rebounding teams, mostly thanks to Teaira McCowan and Anriel Howard. The Bulldogs are the rare team that has two players who are the career rebounding leaders at two different schools.

The 6-foot-7 McCowan has 1,447 to own Mississippi State's record. Howard had 1,002 rebounds at Texas A&M during her first three seasons to earn the Aggies' mark. The 5-foot-11 Howard came to Mississippi State as a graduate transfer during the offseason.

SEVENTH-YEAR WONDER

Clemson guard Simone Westbrook is averaging 13.5 points per game in her seventh season of eligibility after dealing with injuries and other issues. The guard, who recently turned 25, said the experience she's had with the Tigers this year is "something special." Westbrook has been at four schools during her career - Arizona, NW Florida State Community College, Florida and now Clemson.

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Updated March 21, 2019

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