PORTLAND, Ore. — When he entered the Moda Center press room for his media availability ahead of Sunday’s women’s NCAA basketball tournament regional final, Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer carried his trademark manila folder filled with handwritten notes about the Bulldogs’ opponent, Oregon.
Given the recent history between the two teams, there’s a lot for Schaefer to review between Friday night’s semifinal win over Arizona State and Sunday’s 11 a.m. Pacific (2 p.m. ET) tipoff.
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This is the fourth meeting between Mississippi State and Oregon in the last three years, and their second in the past four months. The two teams played in the Rainbow Wahine Showdown in November 2016, then agreed to a home-and-home series that saw the Bulldogs win in Starkville, Mississippi, in December 2017 before the Ducks returned the favor last December with both teams ranked in the top 10.
Now, Oregon and Mississippi State meet as the top two seeds in the Portland Regional with a trip to the Final Four — a third consecutive for the Bulldogs, the first ever for the Ducks — on the line.
“We’ve had some real great games with each other,” Schaefer said. “I appreciated him [Oregon coach Kelly Graves] playing us home and home. He came to us last year; we returned this year. Both games were high-scoring, really knockdown, drag-outs in my mind.”
When Schaefer reviewed the notes from this season’s loss to the Ducks, he surely saw copious references to Oregon’s success drawing Mississippi State’s 6-foot-7 star center Teaira McCowan away from her comfort zone around the basket by repeatedly setting screens with her opposing number, Ruthy Hebard. The typical Ducks possession began with Hebard screening for Oregon point guard Maite Cazorla, and if that went nowhere, Hebard came back up to screen again for Cazorla or Ducks star Sabrina Ionescu.
On the 33 Oregon possessions where McCowan was forced to defend a pick-and-roll, the Ducks scored 45 points — a rate of 136 points per 100 possessions, far worse than the 90.9 points per 100 possessions the Bulldogs have allowed over the course of the season, according to HerHoopStats.com.
So it’s no surprise Schaefer winced at the mention of his team’s pick-and-roll defense during the news conference.
“When we played them earlier in the year, I mean, you just couldn’t help off anybody,” Schaefer said. “They did a tremendous job of spreading you out. If you helped off somebody, you lost ball pressure, they’re going to find who’s open.”
Still, with a short turnaround between games, Schaefer didn’t indicate significant changes in store from his team’s typical defensive style, which has resulted in trips to the NCAA championship game each of the last two seasons with McCowan playing a key role.
“You don’t think I’m going to come out and play 2-3 zone tomorrow night?” Schaefer joked. “[Legendary Texas football coach] Darrell Royal used to say, ‘You go with what brung you.’ We’re a lot better team today than we were three months ago. So is Oregon. We’ve gone through some ways to deal with them a little bit. We have Plan B and Plan C in place in case we have to go to that.”
Certainly, the Ducks will test Mississippi State with a similar game plan. The Bulldogs weren’t the only team to struggle with Oregon’s pick-and-roll game. According to Synergy Sports tracking, the Ducks’ 1.1 points per play on pick-and-rolls, where the ball handler either shot or set up a shot by a teammate, ranks first in Division I this season.
“That’s what we do,” Graves said. “We try to spread people out and make the centers guard us. I mean, that’s no secret. I don’t know how they’ll adjust, but we were fortunate to get some really good looks at the rim last time. I don’t think they’re going to allow us to do that this time. We have to be ready to adjust to whatever they do.”
Ionescu noted that the Ducks can’t rely solely on the pick-and-roll game this time around.
“That’s not going to be the only thing that’s going to work for us tomorrow,” Ionescu said. “Just watching film, we didn’t play our best game over at our place, but we still ended up with a win. I think we have to learn from that and not settle for what we accomplished at our place, continue to grow.”
Though Ionescu scored a team-high 29 points against Mississippi State in Eugene, Oregon, she shot just 5-of-18 from the field in that game. Ionescu’s ability to get to the free throw line (17 makes in as many attempts, both career highs) allowed her to score efficiently despite struggling to make shots.
At the other end of the court, Hebard also excelled defending the post against McCowan, who is listed three inches taller. With the help of Oregon double-teams, Hebard’s effort keeping McCowan from catching the ball in the paint limited the Bulldogs’ leading scorer to just five shot attempts and one free throw in 34 minutes. McCowan’s five points were one of just two times all season she was held to single-digit scoring.
Aside from forward Anriel Howard, who scored a career-high 30 points on 12-of-17 shooting, the other Mississippi State starters were unable to take advantage of the defensive attention on McCowan.
The Bulldogs will have a different look this time around. Forward Chloe Bibby, who played all 40 minutes and scored 12 points in the first meeting, suffered a season-ending knee injury in January. She has been replaced by UConn transfer Andra Espinoza-Hunter, who has averaged nearly three 3-pointers per game on 47 percent shooting over the past 15 games.
Meanwhile, Oregon is anticipating the return of freshman reserve guard Taylor Chavez, who hasn’t played since suffering a foot injury on Feb. 24. Chavez was dressed and available for Friday’s win over South Dakota State, and Graves said he considered getting her on the court in the final minutes so she could get comfortable back in game action. Graves is hopeful Chavez, who played 29 minutes in the win over Mississippi State, will be able to play Sunday.
“She gives us a huge lift and is a player that we don’t have,” he said. “We don’t have anybody that plays like her. We need her and we’ve missed her, so fingers crossed. We’ll see.”
While Sunday’s game is officially at a neutral site, the Ducks will again have somewhat of a home-court advantage. Their campus in Eugene is barely 100 miles south of Portland, which is home to numerous Oregon alumni. The Moda Center, which drew more than 11,000 for Friday’s semifinals, was filled with green and yellow. Having played the Ducks on the road gives the Bulldogs an idea of what they’ll face.
“I don’t think there’s any question that it helps you,” Schaefer said. “I think our kids, they understand they’re going to walk into an arena tomorrow night and it’s going to be green, a lot of people hollering against you, not many hollering for you.”
If they need any reminder of what it will be like, Schaefer’s players need look only to his notes.