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Mississippi St, South Carolina play another title showdown

March 2, 2019
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Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer encourages his players during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against LSU in Starkville, Miss., Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019. Mississippi State won 76-56. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — No. 5 Mississippi State and No. 14 South Carolina have been at the center of the Southeastern Conference’s biggest women’s basketball moments the past few years.

Looks as if they’re ready to do it again.

The Bulldogs (26-2, 14-1) and Gamecocks (21-7, 13-2) close the regular season Sunday with plenty on the line. Mississippi State would clinch its second straight outright SEC title with a victory. A loss would mean co-champions, and Bulldogs coach Vic Schaefer isn’t feeling very generous.

“I’m sure (South Carolina’s) excited about the opportunity to try to grab a share” of the SEC crown, he said. “And I’m going to tell our kids, ‘I don’t want to share anything.’”

Perhaps that comes from playing second fiddle to South Carolina’s program the past few seasons — with a big emphasis on second.

Mississippi State finished second to the Gamecocks in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 regular seasons. The Bulldogs have lost the past three SEC tournament championship games to South Carolina, including last March when they won 32 straight games before coming up short in the final.

The biggest heartbreak of all came in 2017, when South Carolina won the national championship with a 67-55 win over a Mississippi State team fresh off a Final Four takedown of heavily favored UConn, which had won 111 straight before the loss to the Bulldogs.

Schaefer said he and South Carolina coach Dawn Staley take pride in recruiting the best players and developing them into clutch performers ready for the biggest moments.

“This is who we are,” he said. “I always want to be in that game. I know that’s what (Dawn) wants.”

The teams played once this year at Mississippi State, with the Bulldogs pulling away in the second half for an 89-74 victory. Teaira McCowan led the way with 26 points and 24 rebounds.

Staley thinks her team has progressed since then, but knows the only way to slow McCowan is with aggressive defense.

“You’ve got to be willing to stick your face in there and guard her,” Staley said. “If you don’t, she’s going to run all over you.”

Staley’s Gamecocks would need some help to claim the top seed for next week’s SEC tournament in Greenville. If South Carolina beats Mississippi State, Missouri tops Alabama and Georgia beats No. 11 Kentucky, the Gamecocks get the top spot.

No matter how the seeds shake out, Mississippi State and South Carolina could get another chance at each other in the tournament final.

“I like it,” Staley said. “I think they are right now the team to beat. Their record indicates that. If you get another opportunity to meet them, for us, it’s going to end up in the championship game and I’d love to be in that race.”

McCowan said she and her teammates understand the importance of this weekend, about taking care of business, pushing out past shortcomings and finishing off a solo title.

“We’ve just got to stay level-headed, be on our team, can’t focus on the outside,” she said.

The Gamecocks, too, like their chances against Mississippi State.

“We get to see each other every single year,” Gamecocks fifth-year guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore said. “We always pretty come out when it really matters with the win. So it’s pretty cool.”

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AP Sports Writer David Brandt contributed to this report from Starkeville, Mississippi.