March 22, 2023 

‘Talk to me nice’: Sam Purcell, Mississippi State defy odds with bittersweet tournament run 

Inside an unexpected NCAA tournament run

Mississippi State and Notre Dame have only played twice throughout NCAA history. And although Sunday’s game did not end in a historic Arike Ogunbowale 3-point buzzer-beater like in their last matchup at the 2018 National Championship, the Bulldogs’ season similarly ended with a solid run concluding in a close loss to the South Bend program.

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From First Four to upset to a 53-48 loss against No. 3-seed Notre Dame to end to its season, Mississippi State remembers a first-year coach, life-changing seniors, and dancing through March to be the first 11-6-seed upset in the women’s NCAA tournament.

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Dancing Their Way In

In March 2022, Mississippi State named Sam Purcell as its next head coach. Purcell, who had a formidable assistant coaching career most recently at Louisville, took the job after deliberation.

“Obviously when this job came open, I told my former boss Jeff Walz that I always wanted the right fit and the right situation. When it came up, I said, ‘Oh, Jeff, this is the one,’” Purcell told media at the NCAA Tournament. “And the reason it was is because women’s basketball matters in Starkville. There’s been some great coaches before me that have put this program on the map.”

And cut to February: Purcell’s squad sat 19-8 on the season, when the Bulldogs’ coach told The Next that Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” repeatedly plays on his February playlist to manifest the opportunity for March.

But after an SEC Tournament that ended just as soon as it started, when No. 13-seed Texas A&M upset the Bulldogs, it was unclear if Purcell’s group had the requirements, much less confidence, to make it into the NCAA Tournament.

But on Selection Sunday, Mississippi State’s name was called for the first time in four years, with one catch: a play-in game. Seeded 11th, the Bulldogs soon learned they’d have to match up against fellow No. 11-seed Illinois in the First Four. Sitting in Purcell’s Starkville, Miss. home, the team looked excited, but it was clear the work was unfinished.

And so the Bulldogs got to it. Up against a fiery Illinois opponent, who itself could have easily been a higher seed, State battled through the first half and then took over as soon as they it the locker room into the third quarter.

Senior Jessika Carter led the way with 22 points and nine rebounds, as well as 11 points each from Anastasia Hayes and JerKaila Jordan. The Bulldogs owned the glass, outrebounding Illinois 47-28. And when Mississippi State beat Illinois, Purcell instated one of his many mottos: “talk to me nice.”

“I’ve got a new ‘talk to me nice’ list that I would like to mention today,” Purcell said. “I read today we’ve got some new people that are not believing in the Bulldogs. We’ve got Candace Parker who did not put us in the bracket. President Biden did not put us in. A’ja Wilson, and Barack Obama. Now, Barack, I know you’re from Illinois, but you’re a Girl Dad.”

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Fifth-year fighters

Key to this roster were six seniors: graduate students Hayes, Ahlana Smith, Asianae Johnson and Kourtney Weber, redshirt senior Carter and true senior Aislynn Hayes. The fifth-year seniors have officially completed their eligibility, and although Carter has another year of eligibility, Purcell said he did not know if she would stay in Starkville.

Two of the fifth-year players, Hayes and Smith spoke to media before the tournament about what a run would mean for the entire team:

“I think it’s super important knowing that the people on the team that have not had the chance to make it to a tournament yet and this is their first time,” Smith said. “I think it allows them to kind of be settled in and understand that I’ve got teammates that have been here before and knows what it takes.”

These two veteran players exhibit the dichotomies of this team. Smith followed Coach Purcell from Louisville when he got the head coach job in Starkville, whereas Hayes stayed at Mississippi State despite the coaching change. Preseason, Hayes told media that just a couple hours after Purcell’s coaching tenure was announced and he arrived on campus, he met with her. At that late-night March meeting, Purcell painted a picture of growth and dominance. And as key players, namely Rickea Jackson and Myah Taylor, transferred out of the program, Hayes stayed, and her season transformed.

“I think Annie doesn’t get enough credit for the role she had to take this year,” Weber said to media after the season-ending loss. “She was like the returning leading scorer in the SEC, and in order for us to succeed this year, she had to take a role and distribute the ball more, and she took that with class. She didn’t complain.”

In 2021-22, Hayes was the third-leading scorer in the SEC, averaging 18.6 points, whereas this year, she barely makes the top 50 scorers, averaging just 8.2. But she makes up for it in assists, leading the conference with 4.6 assists per game, which Purcell said was intentional.

“I said, ‘I know you’re the leading scorers when they had seven players and you played significant minutes. But our goal, Annie, in your last year, is to be more than just a scorer,’” Purcell told media. “‘I believe that you’re a winner; that you’re going to be able to get after it like no other.’”

And Hayes flexed her team player muscle in the Bulldogs’ First Round 81-66 upset against Creighton. Hayes led the team with seven assists, was the third-leading scorer with 12 points, and had five rebounds.

The sixth-seeded Bluejays, the 2022 Tournament Cinderellas, were a tough 3-point shooting team, undersized compared to State but a challenging matchup. Uncharacteristically, the Bulldogs opened the game with back-to-back threes from freshman Debreasha Powe, and overall made 11 from beyond the arc at a 58% clip.

“We still knew it was going to be a dogfight. That was a great start, but we knew it was going to be a dogfight,” Smith said about the game.

Four veterans — Carter, Smith, Hayes and Johnson — all scored in double figures to build a consistent lead that the Bulldogs continued to exploit, shooting the absolute lights out. And although Creighton almost made a fourth-quarter push, it was all Mississippi State by the final whistle.

Beating the first-year odds

Over the last four years, since long-time coach Vic Schaefer left Starkville for Texas, the Bulldogs have seen four different head coaches. And after a run like this for a first-year head coach, it finally seems that Mississippi State has found its long-term solution.

After Sunday’s loss, in which a dogged State fought closely through a brutal low-scoring game marked by a collective 24 trips to the line, Purcell fought back tears speaking about his team and its run.

“As I reflect, now that the year is officially done, a question comes to mind that everybody’s asked me: ‘What’s the hardest thing being a first-year coach?’ And I honestly had no answer because we went so hard in this program. … But to answer that question, it’s this right here,” Purcell said about the loss. “This team is so special. These seniors are so special. What we did was so special. You have a program that a lot of people around the country said, ‘’it’s done; it had its glory years.‘’”

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Drawing on the last Notre Dame-versus-Mississippi State fight, it’s easy to see how Purcell is both under pressure and fueled by the legacy of his program. As one of the best-attended teams in women’s basketball, in a rabid SEC, with a fanbase with recent memories of greatness, taking the helm of this team could be challenging. But Purcell ultimately thanked the community for the chance.

“I’m forever grateful for Mississippi State hiring a first-year coach because you’ve got to have somebody believe in you,” he said, “and I’m forever grateful to the university for giving me a chance.”

It is rare to find glory in one’s first year as a head coach, particularly in the current environment where transfers are omnipresent, but Purcell somehow found a way to keep the core of his group together, make additions and win.

“I think just looking back at it, as we get older in life, this is just something we’re going to look back at,” the graduating Weber said after the loss. “We trusted Coach Sam. We both left different schools to come here. We had one year left. I mean, making it here was everything.”

Written by Gabriella Lewis

Gabriella is The Next's Atlanta Dream and SEC beat reporter. She is a Bay Area native currently studying at Emory University.

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