By Austin Bishop

Sports Columnist



STARKVILLE — It was a wave that meant so much.

Just a couple minutes following Mississippi State's 71-56 win over Oklahoma State a week ago Monday at the Humphrey Coliseum, Victoria Vivians, Morgan William, Blair Schaefer, and Roshunda Johnson stood on the school's emblem at center court and waved to the crowd as if they were four Miss America's taking their celebratory curtain calls.

For most of the 9,881 who were in attendance to watch the Bulldogs advance to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament for the third consecutive time, it would be the last time they would see those four in uniform.

The accomplishments of this senior class have been oft repeated. After this past weekend's win overs North Carolina State and UCLA, the Bulldogs have put together a school record 125 victories over the last four years, making the NCAA Tournament each season. Who can forget the shot heard around the college basketball world last year, when William's pull-up jumper at the buzzer brought UConn's 111-game winning streak to its knees and made MSU a finalist in the National Championship Game?

The Bulldogs began this season with a school-record 32 consecutive wins and currently stand at 36-1, the most ever for an MSU basketball team.

The success for the women's program has been unprecedented in coach Vic Schaefer's six-year tenure in Starkville, particularly the last four seasons. After posting a 13-17 record in his first season, the Bulldogs have responded with win-loss marks of 22-14, 27-7, 28-8, 34-5 and now 36-1 as they worked their way to the school's first ever SEC Championship in women's basketball — earned this year with a remarkable 16-0 league record — and national prominence.

The top 20 crowds that have ever flowed into The Hump to watch a women's basketball have come in the last three years.

As the team was announced prior to the March 19 game against Oklahoma State the sound that rushed to the floor was deafening. You could even see small smiles creep across the faces of some of the OSU Cowgirls, as they recognized the appreciation that was flowing from the stands onto the floor for the Bulldogs.

How does a fan-base become so attached to a team in such a short time span? Such a formula can be elusive and certainly varies from team-to-team and school-to-school. But for Schaefer's MSU Bulldogs it really comes down to five things:

— They win;

— They are unselfish;

— They continue to fight back in tough situations:

— They play hard, and;

— They are connected to the fans.

While winning undeniably is the linchpin to creating a fan base, the last two on the list can't be overlooked and are arguably the most important; especially in the case of this group of Bulldogs.

Even before the program began to have it's unprecedented success, Schaefer's teams played hard. That is one of the first evidences of how a team feels about its coach. If it plays hard for you, the team believes in what you are teaching them and how you feel about them. It's as simple as that.

But, the fan connection can't be overlooked. Long before the women's team began to get any National attention, they would routinely go into the stands after home games, greeting fans, shaking hands, receiving hugs, signing autographs and having selfies taken with admirers both young and old.

And they really seemed to enjoy it.

"It's what we do," Schaefer has said before when asked why his teams do that. "These fans love these girls and our team loves the fans. It's a family."

And that was the case following the win against OSU as well.

Long after the game was over fans were crammed into the section behind the team bench, waiting patiently for autographs and photos. And the Bulldogs, with smiles on their faces, greeted each one as if they were the only fan in the house. It only makes sense that Sister Sledge's "We Are Family" was playing in the background. That's what this team and it's fan base are — family.

So what's next?

A return trip to the Final Four was accomplished Sunday night with a solid 89-73 win over UCLA in Kansas City.

While the memories of Vivians, William, Schaefer and Johnson standing on the State emblem and waving goodbye to their beloved fan base at the end of the team's last home game will be etched into the minds of many, so are the hopes of another celebratory wave — the one that could come at the opening game of next season when the team gathers together once again to celebrate this season's accomplishment's as another banner, perhaps the most coveted one of all, is slowly raised into the rafters of Humphrey Coliseum.

And what a family reunion that will be.



Austin Bishop has been covering high school and college sports in Mississippi for more than 42 years.