BC-BKW--T25-SEC-Missouri-Mississippi State,1st Ld-Writethru
GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) — Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer has reached this point before. He’d like a much different ending Sunday at the Southeastern Conference tournament championship.
Teaira McCowan had 27 points and 16 rebounds while teammate Anriel Howard had 19 points and 10 boards as the fifth-ranked Bulldogs pulled away from Missouri 71-56 on Saturday to advance to their fourth consecutive finals appearance. And Schaefer urged his team to take that last step to a title after losing the past three championship games to South Carolina.
“I’m tired of having confetti hit my backside as I walk to the locker room,” Schaefer said.
He told his players soon after the game. “It’s one more for the rest of your life,” he said. “What have you got?”
In McCowan and Howard, the Bulldogs (29-2) have one of the most potent combos in the SEC. The two have combined for 89 points and 45 rebounds in two tournament games. And the two are developing a stronger bond each time they hit the court, Schaefer said.
“They’re finally getting some chemistry between them,” he said. “Enjoying the success of each other.”
McCowan is the 6-foot-7 force underneath who won SEC player of the year this week. Howard is a grad transfer from Texas A&M who has worked to fit into a veteran team that had reached the Final Four each of the previous two seasons.
“To be able to be out there together every day (at practice), you’ll get chemistry eventually,” Howard said. “We’re showing we can be a pretty good duo.”
They were that against Missouri (23-10), the only SEC opponent to defeat them the past two regular seasons.
Mississippi State will face either No. 15 Texas A&M or 10th-seeded Arkansas for the SEC tournament title. Four-time defending SEC tournament champion South Carolina was beaten by Arkansas in Friday’s quarterfinals.
Sophie Cunningham scored a season-high 33 points for Missouri (23-10). She had five of the Tigers’ nine 3-pointers before fouling out.
The Tigers bettered Mississippi State down low in their last meeting, McCowan bothered by fouls. This time, McCowan and Howard were relentless in attacking the basket and Mississippi State doubled up Missouri in points in the paint, 48-24.
Tigers coach Robin Pingeton said her team tried to attack McCowan in a similar fashion without much success. “We had our hands full,” she said. “We just didn’t do a good job with that.”
When Missouri cut a 16-point lead down to 43-38 off Cunningham’s 11 straight points late in the third quarter, SEC player of the year McCowan powered an 11-3 surge with eight points.
As they did in their quarterfinal win over Tennessee, the Bulldogs started slowly and with Cunningham scoring seven points for the Tigers, found themselves down 14-11. But as in the 83-68 win over the Lady Vols, the Bulldogs got it rolling in the second quarter.
McCowan was front and center in the charge with four baskets, all from close in. Howard did her thing from the outside, too, with a 3-pointer and another jumper to put Mississippi State up by 13.
McCowan accomplished her 26th game this season with double figure points and rebounds with 12 points and 10 boards by halftime.
Missouri: The Tigers, led by three-time all-SEC first team selection Cunningham, will be a difficult out wherever they’re sent when NCAA women’s tournament selections are announced March 18. Cunningham was her team’s lone double-digit scorer. Missouri will need more production from the others if it hopes to stick around in the postseason.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs entered this week with a mission and have relentlessly moved forward toward their first-ever SEC tournament title. Howard, the Texas A&M grad transfer, has turned her game up another notch and seemed poised to take Mississippi State on a strong run through the NCAAs.
Sophie Cunningham became her program’s all-time points leader in the semifinal loss. Cunningham has 2,157 points, surpassing Joni Davis’ mark of 2,126 set from 1981-85. Cunningham was pleased, but not ready to focus on the achievement. “I’m frustrated right now,” she said.
Missouri will await a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Mississippi State plays either No. 15 Texas A&M or Arkansas in the championship Sunday.
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