Only one team has beaten Mississippi State in its past 42 games: South Carolina, which has done it three times in that stretch. So perhaps it's good news for the Bulldogs that in this NCAA tournament, the only way they could meet the Gamecocks would be in the national championship game.
That's what happened last season, when South Carolina won 67-55 in the final in Dallas. Mississippi State did not lose again until the SEC tournament final on March 4. The Bulldogs' 32-1 record, with a 16-0 run through a difficult SEC regular-season schedule, was enough to earn them their first No. 1 seed in program history. They'll be the top team in the Kansas City Regional and open play Saturday at home in Starkville, Mississippi, against NCAA tournament first-timer Nicholls State, the No. 16 seed.
This comes after another Bulldogs first: They're the first women's team at Mississippi State to claim a conference title. The Bulldogs hoped to stay unbeaten heading into the Big Dance, but they struggled with foul trouble and offensive execution against South Carolina in the SEC tournament final in Nashville, Tennessee.
Disappointed as they were after that 62-51 loss, the Bulldogs immediately looked to the bigger picture. They'll now try to replicate a stellar 2017 NCAA tournament -- but with one additional victory.
"We've got to get better every day. We've got a new season coming up," Mississippi State point guard Morgan William said after the SEC championship game loss. "We can't just drop our heads and think it's the end of the world.
"And I think this game shows we need to take it to the basket more often, because the shots are not going to always fall."
An enormous shot did fall, though, for William last year, with her buzzer-beating winner in overtime against UConn in the national semifinals. That 66-64 victory was one of the biggest upsets -- if not the biggest -- in NCAA tournament history, considering UConn was on a 111-game winning streak and had beaten Mississippi State by 60 points in the Sweet 16 the year before.
But William and the Bulldogs had already shown they were formidable last year with a 94-85 overtime victory against Baylor in the Oklahoma City Regional final. William scored a career-high 41 points in that game, emotionally dedicating it to her late father. The diminutive point guard became one of the nation's favorites then -- even before her shot that knocked off UConn.
Listed at 5-foot-5 (but not really that tall), William doesn't seem crazy about her "Itty-Bitty" nickname, but she also doesn't seem to object to it. That's in keeping with her low-key, get-it-done, hard-working personality.
This season, William has directed a four-out, one-in offense that coach Vic Schaefer said is the most effective and efficient he has had in his six seasons at Mississippi State. William has 153 assists to just 37 turnovers while averaging 7.5 points per game.
Leading the way in scoring is fellow senior Victoria Vivians, whose 19.6 points per game average also comes with a career-best 48.5 field goal percentage. Leading the charge in 3-pointers is another senior, Blair Schaefer, with 88. The fourth starting senior, Roshunda Johnson, averages 12.0 PPG and has 70 treys.
Filling up the middle is 6-foot-7 junior center Teaira McCowan, whose per-game averages of 17.2 points and 13.2 rebounds, along with her 65 blocked shots, earned her espnW first-team All-American honors. Vivians was named to the espnW third team.
But what happened to the Bulldogs in the SEC final was something Schaefer had been worried about: McCowan got into early foul trouble and sat for much of the first half, and the Bulldogs' offense just never got into sync. Their 51 points for the game and their 15.8 percentage from behind the arc were season lows, with their 34.5 overall shooting percentage the second worst of the year.
"We got a lot of shots that we typically make," Schaefer said. "So it was one of those days -- and really frustrating, just because it's not happened in a long, long time."
The Bulldogs have had plenty of time since then to reflect on that game and what went wrong. They have the potential for a difficult second-round game against either No. 8 Syracuse or No. 9 Oklahoma State. The Cowgirls came the closest to beating Mississippi State this season before South Carolina did it, as Oklahoma State lost 79-76 in Starkville on Dec. 3. And Mississippi State beat Syracuse 76-65 in a competitive game Dec. 21 in Las Vegas.
If seeds were to hold to the regional, Mississippi State would face No. 4 NC State in the semis and then possibly No. 2 Texas in the final.
And while their last game was far from their best, the Bulldogs have 32 others this season from which to draw a lot of confidence.