By Rusty Miller/The Associated Press
DAYTON, Ohio — This is uncharted territory for Mississippi State.
The Lady Bulldogs are making their very first trip to the regional semifinals in the NCAA tournament. Their next test will be against Florida State, a team that is only now growing accustomed to being the hunted instead of the hunter.
“There were cowbells as we were walking off the bus,” guard Alexis Rack said, accepting that welcome as Starkville, Miss., compliment in the wake of last week’s stunning 87-67 upset of second-seeded Ohio State.
The victory up in Pittsburgh touched off a raucous response.
“There was definitely a lot of excitement on campus,” guard Mary Kathryn Govero said with a broad smile. “We had a good reception back home.”
Now another milestone awaits, should seventh-seeded Mississippi State (21-12) get by third-seeded Florida State (28-5) on Sunday afternoon at the University of Dayton Arena. The winner would draw either Iowa State or top-ranked Connecticut, riding a 74-game winning streak, on Tuesday night with a trip to the Final Four in San Antonio hanging in the balance.
Some teams embrace being an underdog. Others take years to adapt to being a favorite. Florida State coach Sue Semrau said her team first felt as though it had a target on its back a year ago.
The Seminoles received what was then their highest NCAA seeding ever (a No. 3) and it became clear that sixth-seeded Arizona State took it personally. The Sun Devils made 6 of 9 3-pointers in the second half to overcome a four-point halftime deficit and eliminate the Seminoles 63-58 in the second round.
“I think we learned a lot from that game,” Semrau said. “I have three seniors who are vital to everything we do and they have been the ones to carry that forward. That’s exactly what a coach wants, is a team who has leadership and takes ownership of the group and that’s what these three seniors have done.”
Those upperclassmen — guards Angel Gray and Alysha Harvin along with 6-foot-5 tower of power inside Jacinta Monroe — are the backbone of the Florida State team.
Harvin said that when she looks at Mississippi State, she sees a team in transformation, much like the one that Florida State has undergone.
“Mississippi State is a great team. They kind of remind me a lot of our team. They are fast, they have good guard players and post players,” Harvin said. “We just need to go out and be there for each other. That’s the biggest thing we said we wanted to do this year, was stay together. If we can do that, and are there together defensively, our offense will come. We just need to stay together.”
It’s been a whirlwind couple of weeks for Mississippi State, which came into the NCAA tournament having lost three of its last five games. After barely getting by Middle Tennessee in the first round, the Lady Bulldogs played what may have been their finest game of the year.
They shot 56 percent from the field, made a season-high 12 3-pointers and hit a season-high 55 percent behind the arc against the stunned Buckeyes, who had their eyes set on a possible regional championship game against UConn just an hour or so away from their campus. But the Lady Bulldogs made sure that didn’t happen.
“We came out focused and played well for 40 minutes defensively,” Govero said. “We got stops, which is huge for us. Alexis started off the game hitting shots from the inside out, which opened up opportunities for everybody else on the team. We fed off that energy.”
The key to the game between the Lady Bulldogs and Seminoles figures to be the effectiveness of the centers. Monroe averages 13.2 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.1 blocked shots a game. Mississippi State will counter with almost a mirror image: Chanel Mokango, a gangly 6-5 post, averages 11.3 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.4 blocks a game.
Monroe is already being tabbed as a first round pick in the WNBA draft. But first things first.
“I try not to look too far ahead to the next level — I’m trying to be here, focused in the moment for my teammates and for myself — and enjoy the rest of the season,” she said.
However much longer that season might be.