Vic Schaefer and his Mississippi State Bulldogs carry a constant reminder of how far they went in the women's NCAA tournament last year, and what must still be done.
It's right there, engraved on the side of their runner-up rings: “ONE MORE.”
A season after losing to South Carolina 67-55 in the title game, Morgan William and the Bulldogs try again to win that elusive first crown. They play Notre Dame on Sunday night in a matchup of teams that both have spoiled perfect seasons for mighty UConn.
“We would say add another one a lot. One More,” Schaefer said. “It came from two Navy SEALs who worked with the kids in the fall — Sam and Brian. One of the things they talk about all the time is one more.”
Schaefer learned a lot from last year's loss in the title game. He felt his players were tired after practicing the day after the monumental upset of UConn that ended the Huskies' record 111-game winning streak.
So he's changed his philosophy the second time around and will be taking it a bit easier on his team.
“I told my seniors and they called the doctor thinking I had lost my mind,” Schaefer said. “We're not going to kill ourselves in practice. We'll spend a lot of time stretching especially with those kids that played a lot of minutes last night. We are going to shoot a lot, go through their stuff and our stuff. That's about it.”
The Bulldogs won another thriller, beating Louisville in overtime to advance to the title game a second consecutive season. This time, though, it was the first semifinal and the players were able to get to bed about three hours earlier than the previous year.
“Yeah, we watched the UConn-Notre Dame game but then were able to get to sleep around 12:30 a.m.,” said William, who hit the buzzer-beating shot that dropped UConn last season.
This time it was Notre Dame that ended the Huskies' undefeated season. Arike Ogunbowale hit a jumper from the wing with a second left in overtime to beat UConn.
A win on Sunday would give coach Muffet McGraw a second title at Notre Dame. The Irish won in 2001 before falling short in the championship game in 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2015.
“It's all about the mindset,” she said. “Really it's all about this is a game, two teams coming in playing for a national championship. They were here last year. They know what it's like. So for us, I think just a matter of continuing to do what we've been doing and not let the pressure of the moment get to us.”
This might be one of the most improbable NCAA runs by a McGraw team despite being a No. 1 seed. The Irish lost four players over the season to ACL injuries. They never felt sorry for themselves.
“We actually didn't really talk about it at all,” McGraw said. “We just constantly focus on what we have, what we can do, who's going to step up, how are the roles changing? What do you need to do now? We never even talked about where we could be or what we should be thinking. We just kept focusing them on the future.”
This will be the first time these teams have played each other. Schaefer, however, is no stranger to McGraw and the Irish. He was an assistant coach on the Texas A&M team that beat Notre Dame to win the 2011 national championship.
The Irish will need to find a way to deal with Mississippi State center Teaira McCowan. She had 21 points and a Final Four-record 25 rebounds against Louisville.