Chattanooga-Mississippi St. Preview
(AP) – It's pretty clear that Victoria Vivians is Mississippi State's biggest star.
The fifth-seeded Bulldogs' NCAA Tournament chances, though, may come down to how well her supporting cast plays.
Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer was never shy about saying Vivians – who was a small-town Mississippi high school star – would be the player who would push the Bulldogs into the SEC's elite.
Two years later, his prediction has proven true. But the Bulldogs are still at their best when Vivians, averaging 17.2 points, has some help.
''When Victoria's playing well I think you see our team relax and play well,'' Schaefer said. ''I think they feel a sense of calmness, so to speak. But we've also had some of our highest-scoring games with Victoria not scoring much.''
Morgan William is the Lady Bulldogs' second-leading scorer at 9.9 points per game and junior guard Dominique Dillingham has stepped up lately with an average of 10.2 in her last 12.
Mississippi State (26-7) opens tournament play Friday at home against 12th-seeded Chattanooga (24-7) thanks to a state high school girls basketball tournament taking over fourth-seeded Michigan State's Breslin Center.
The Spartans or Belmont will be Mississippi State's opponent should it win, but it might be hard not to peak down the road and see the likelihood of another juggernaut Connecticut team looming in the Sweet 16 of the Bridgeport regional.
Vivians will likely be a handful for Chattanooga. The sophomore played some of her best basketball during the SEC tournament, averaging 22.0 points as the Bulldogs advanced to the final before losing to South Carolina.
The Lady Mocs come in on a roll, though, having won 11 straight and winning the Southern Conference tournament by beating Mercer 65-57 on March 6.
They boast a stellar defense that's held opponents to 52.6 points per game over the course of the season and been even stingier during this run, yielding an average of 47.8 points.
The competition has been far different than some of the heavyweights they faced during their nonconference slate, though. Chattanooga only lost by two to then-No. 4 Tennessee in November but fell to ranked opponents South Florida, Stanford and UConn by a combined 119 points.
Three Lady Mocs average between 11.1 and 12.9 points – Jasmine Joyner, Keiana Gilbert and Queen Alford – and that doesn't even include Alicia Payne, the two-time defending SoCon defensive player of the year and 2016 conference tournament most outstanding player.
Chattanooga has shot 33.5 percent while dropping its last eight NCAA Tournament games since 2004, losing in each of the past three seasons.