No doubt, both squads have been pleased with their original plans for the 2014-15 campaign, each winning three games in the Preseason WNIT and set to meet Sunday at 3 p.m. EST (2 p.m. CST) for the championship game in Starkville, Miss. The game will be televised live by CBS Sports Network.
Mississippi State has rumbled to the Preseason WNIT final thanks to a quick-study group of young players who have coped with the absence of three injured upperclassmen. One might have thought Thursday’s game against No. 17 West Virginia would have been a breaking point, but the Bulldogs held the Mountaineers to just 64 points. Front and center in that effort was the defense of Dominique Dillingham, who played almost the entire game and hounded WV’s leading scorer, Bria Holmes, into an 8-for-23 shooting night.
That was the first non-conference win for the Bulldogs against a ranked opponent since they toppled No. 8 Ohio State in the 2010 NCAA tournament.
“I was pleased with our grit and determination. We fixed a lot of problems in two days for a big game against a very talented team,” said MSU coach Vic Schaefer, whose team had allowed 87 points in a quarterfinal win against Seton Hall. “Dominique epitomizes what a basketball player is, and I can’t get her off the floor. She played 38 minutes of great defense and kind of wore that kid out. I was highly encouraged to see what we could fix.”
Because of the injury issues complicating the roster, MSU is turning to freshmen and sophomores to fuel the offense. In Victoria Vivians, the Bulldogs have the highest-scoring high school player to ever post official stats, and she’s averaging 20 points a game so far. Classmate Morgan William scored 29 points in a WNIT game, and sophomore Ketara Chapel is averaging 11 points and seven rebounds.
“We’ve had good (recruiting) classes back-to-back. All of these players have been in big games and taken big shots, in high school or AAU,” Schaefer said. “These are all confident kids. I’ve seen Vivian score 41 points in a game, come back 18 hours late and put up 60.
“Western Kentucky is well-coached and plays hard. They forced Albany into 33 turnovers, so we have our hands full. We’re excited for the chance to win a championship, because those chances can be few and far between.”
While that signature victory against West Virginia and the fact the Bulldogs will be at home Sunday make them a favorite going in, Western Kentucky has reason to feel confident about its chances. The Lady Toppers have had three varieties of victory so far in the Preseason WNIT – a confidence-building blowout in round one (93-57 against Central Arkansas), an extreme stress test on the road (a 79-78 overtime triumph at Colorado) and a solid build-a-lead-and-protect result in the semis ( 63-54 over Albany).
Western Kentucky is widely appreciated as a top-three mid-major NCAA program, and those teams salivate for the chance to prove themselves against the power conferences. This is the first appearance for a mid-major in the Preseason WNIT final since 2000.
“We had nailbiters all through the Sun Belt tournament last year, then went into Waco and had to play Baylor in the NCAA’s – we’re starting to evolve, and we’re doing it around the veterans,” said WKU coach Michelle Clark-Heard. “The Colorado game, that’s not an easy place to play, and the type of game it was with people fouling out, we showed great chemistry. As far as a ‘wow’ factor for us, you wonder when a team is going to get it, and that was an unbelievable team win.”
Playing with the right edge means Clark-Heard is leaning on her most trusted core, and four players are averaging more than 30 minutes per game. The lightning rod for defensive attention and for WKU’s own hopes for a great season leads straight to senior Chastity Gooch, who is averaging roughly 19 points and eight rebounds per game. The six-footer is smart with the ball effective inside and out, one reason she’s talked about as an all-American candidate.
“She’s handled it perfectly. She’s a humble kid who works hard every day,” Clark-Heard said. “When gets the accolades and exposure, she always credits her teammates. Her goal is to compete at the highest level, and in big games, she always shows up.”
Kendall Noble, a 5-11 redshirt sophomore guard, is building nicely on a freshman campaign where she was the Sun Belt freshman of the year. Her career was slowed by an ACL injury before she played her first game, but she’s adding to the Lady Toppers’ attack with 12 points and 12 rebounds per game, as well as 14 steals in three contests.
“I watched her in high school, too, and I don’t think anybody has been in as many Kentucky state tournament games as she has. She was a huge recruit for us, because we knew what we were getting,” Clark-Heard added. “She’s a very driven kid, loves basketball, but is very quiet. She stepped up last year and never looked back – and if I need her at point guard, off-guard, she’ll do whatever it takes.”
One thing Western Kentucky will need to solve is its struggles from three-point range, with the team hitting just 13-of-58 looks (22.4 percent) so far. MSU also happens to make it tough on three-point shooters, with Bulldogs opponents going merely 5-of-24 (21 percent) in three games.