LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer circled many areas of the stat sheet to note how the No. 2 Bulldogs did the little things against Kentucky to achieve perfection.
Their next challenge is keeping it going as the team to beat in the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
Teaira McCowan had 20 points and 20 rebounds to match a career high, Victoria Vivians added 18 points and 10 rebounds and Mississippi State routed Kentucky 85-63 on Sunday to become the first SEC team to finish the regular season unbeaten in 20 years.
“It’s impressive because we’ve never done it,” Vivians said. “We didn’t look ahead to more games, we just took every day one step at a time. Our focus wasn’t on the 30-0 (record), it was winning the next game.”
MSU just needed to shake off a slow start to finish with a flourish for their first win in Lexington since 2009.
The Bulldogs (30-0, 16-0 SEC) matched Tennessee’s milestone in 1997-98 after erasing a 9-3 deficit with a 14-4 run led by 3-point shooting. The 6-foot-7 McCowan then took control inside on both ends of the floor before Vivians warmed up offensively after halftime.
McCowan did most of her damage in the first half with 17 points and 13 rebounds for her 22nd double-double this season. She helped the Bulldogs dominate the boards 40-23 and paint scoring 38-20. MSU also posted 24 assists and finished 10 of 18 from behind the arc, with Blair Schaefer making four for 12 points.
“Our focus was to come in and keep them from running the plays they wanted and pushing them out,” said McCowan, who also had all five blocks. “We did, and everything else went well.”
The Bulldogs didn’t celebrate wildly, probably because the toughest work is ahead. But they and Schaefer took heart in the achievement.
“I’m just extremely proud of our program, our players and my staff, getting through this gauntlet of a league and where we are today,” he said.
“Our whole help mentality and our sharing the basketball, it’s what we’ve done all year. We’ve been very, very consistent with that and today was no different.”
Maci Morris scored 16 of her 22 points in the first half for the Wildcats (14-16, 6-10), who had won two of three coming in. Kentucky’s losing mark in conference play was its first since 2008-09, coach Matthew Mitchell’s second season with the program.
Mississippi State: The top-seeded Bulldogs now look forward to a double bye in the SEC Tournament after a strong finish to their regular-season finale. It took a few minutes to get going and they never stopped after getting the lead, using a potent outside-inside mix to earn their sixth consecutive win by at least 19 points.
Kentucky: The Wildcats now look to the SEC Tournament as the No. 9 seed and possibly pick up wins and avoid the first losing season in Mitchell’s 11 seasons in Lexington. Their quest of a .500 regular season and pulling off an upset started well with good shots and tough defense. They just couldn’t stop McCowan inside, a mission that became harder when senior forward Alyssa Rice (3 rebounds, 2 points) picked up her third foul early in the second quarter.
“We just didn’t have an answer for McCowan,” Mitchell said, “and then Vivians got going in the second half.”
Foul trouble while guarding McCowan limited the 6-3 Rice to 18 minutes in her Kentucky home finale. Mitchell nonetheless praised her for sticking with it, not getting another foul and even scoring a late basket.
Today embodied what she’s done here,” the coach said. “She always steps up for the tough assignment. Took a charge today, boxed McCowan out a few times in a really, really difficult assignment. That’s what she does.”
Senior guard Jessica Hardin had a basket in her first career start with the Wildcats.
Mississippi State: Plays in Friday’s quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament in Nashville.
Kentucky: Plays No. 8 seed Alabama in Thursday’s second round of the SEC Tournament in Nashville.
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