BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Teaira McCowan and Mississippi State women’s hoops team are hoping to take that one final step.
The Bulldogs are the favorites to win the Southeastern Conference again but the biggest, most exasperatingly elusive goal remains to win a national title.
McCowan leads a team that has made the past two national championship games only to fall short of a title.
“That’s definitely in the back of our minds,” McCowan said Thursday at SEC media day. “But first we have to learn how to do the things in order to get back to that point.”
Coach Vic Schaefer must replace four starters from a team that won its first 32 games and went 37-2, including first-team AP All-American Victoria Vivians.
The Bulldogs are still regarded as the front-runners.
“Now, you’ve got to go wear it,” Schaeffer said. “You’d better stay humble and hungry in this league or this league will humble you in a hurry.”
The national championship game left a bitter memory even after winning the program’s first SEC regular season title. Notre Dame won 61-58 on a last-second 3-pointer after Mississippi State let a 15-point third-quarter lead slip away.
“We’ve been on the cusp for two years in a row,” Schaefer said. “But you know, at the end of the day, it’s on my shoulders to get them prepared to get through that last three seconds that were there last year.”
McCowan was an AP All-American after setting league records with 544 rebounds and 29 double-doubles. She averaged 20.8 points and 18.2 rebounds in NCAA Tournament games.
Schaefer also added graduate transfer Anriel Howard, Texas A&M’s top career rebounder. Howard ranked seventh nationally with an average of 12.2 rebounds per game last season.
Tennessee and 2017 national champion South Carolina — which beat the Bulldogs in the title game — appear to be Mississippi State’s most likely challengers.
“This is kind of a new era for us,” Lady Vols coach Holly Warlick said. “A’ja Wilson’s gone. Mercedes Russell and Jaime Nared are gone from our team. Mississippi State, four of their starters are gone, so it’s a little bit wide open.
“But you’re going to see the same quality of opponent that you’ve seen in the past.”
The Gamecocks’ Dawn Staley must replace consensus national player of the year and No. 1 overall WNBA draft pick A’ja Wilson .
“A’ja Wilson was something to see in this league,” Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. “I’ve been around the league 20 years and she’s one of the best I’ve ever seen come through. So certainly some adjustment has to be made there, but I’m sure they’ll be an outstanding team.”
Alexis Jennings is a preseason first-team All-SEC pick for the Gamecocks while Top 10 recruit Destanni Henderson joins the roster. Jennings isn’t trying to be the next Wilson.
“I don’t think those are shoes I can fill,” she said.
Staley didn’t mind too much being picked second, though she might have understated her team’s standing.
“We’re going to fly under that radar a little bit and figure out an identity and hopefully be at the top at the end of the season,” she said.
Staley also knows that the Gamecocks’ recent track record makes voters hesitant to put them further down in the predictions.
But, she said with a smile, “Nobody remembers second.”
Tennessee returns three starters, led by guard/forward Rennia Davis, and landed a Top 5 recruiting class. The Lady Vols have 10 6-footers and half of them are at least 6-3.
“Our wingspan is huge,” said Warlick, who received a three-year contract extension through the 2021-22 season.
“We’re extremely tall. We are lengthy. Very athletic. It’s going to help us play the way we want to play and that’s fast and getting up and down the floor.”
The SEC set an attendance record for any conference last season, drawing more than 1.1 million fans and sending seven teams to the NCAA Tournament.