by Rebecca Harris
[originally posted on ncaa.com]
DALLAS — When Mississippi State’s Teaira McCowan walks into a room, you notice two things.
First, the 6-foot-7 center, the tallest player on the team, has to stoop to enter.
The second is the wry smile and slight shake of her head every time she does this.
McCowan played other sports in high school, including volleyball and shotput, and won a silver medal at the Texas state championship as a senior. There was basketball, too, of course. At first, she played because of her height. What coach wouldn’t play a 6-foot athlete in girl’s high school basketball? The technique, however, took a little longer to develop.
“I was taller than everybody. So they would throw the ball to me and I would lay it in,” she said. “But I wasn’t that skilled so I had to develop myself into the player I am today over time.”
Those skills finally advanced, and she was a five-star recruit coming out of high school. As a sophomore, she’s been showing them over and over again, coming off the bench in every regular season game for the Bulldogs, and contributing to the team’s 33 wins. In fact, she earned the SEC 6th Woman of the Year award for her efforts.
Head coach Vic Schaefer took notice of her consistency and efficiency, and in the Sweet 16, he entrusted her with the biggest test to date: A position in the starting lineup for the game against Washington and the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer Kelsey Plum.
McCowan had just six points heading into the fourth quarter. But that fourth quarter, as in all games, was what mattered most. McCowan knew that. She’d been coming off the bench to help her team in moments like these all season.
So, down 50-48 going into the last 10 minutes, she racked up 20 points. After averaging 9.3 points per game in the regular season, she finished with 26, along with 12 rebounds and two assists. McCowan said she didn’t even think twice going into the final quarter. She was needed and she had to follow through.
“They [her teammates] always tell me, ‘T, we need you. We need you,’” McCowan said. “Just them having that confidence, it’s like I have no other choice but to live up to that and deliver it for them when I’m called on.”
On Sunday, she and her teammates will play for the national championship. The No. 2 seeded Bulldogs beat top-ranked UConn in overtime Saturday night, who were winners of 111 straight games before the buzzer-beating overtime loss. With the 66-64 victory, Mississippi State will play in its first title game in program history.
After an early foul, McCowan scored two early layups and added two more in regulation. It was the fifth layup in overtime, though, that had the most impact. Mississippi State went up 64-62 with 1:13 left in the extra period.
“In the moment there’s a lot of distractions, but when you get to the game you have to put all that outside your head,” she said. “I heard our fans more than I heard UConn’s fans. Just being there was an amazing feeling.”