Starkville Daily News

MSU looks to continue riding wave in Purcell’s first season


Exactly one year to the day that Sam Purcell was hired as the head coach of the women's basketball team at Mississipp­i State, the first-year leader of the program sat in his house with his team and coaches awaiting some important news.

Purcell came to MSU with a vision to get the program back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2018-19. Within the first few minutes of the show, he and his Bulldogs watched their name flash on the screen and celebratio­n ensued.

It was the culminatio­n of 365 days worth of hard work from the coaching staff and the players. From building a staff and recruiting the roster while he was finishing his tenure with Louisville that ended in the Final Four to the hardships and rewards that came throughout the season.the work isn't finished this year, but Purcell is happy to see his players get an opportunit­y.

“You just go so fast,” Purcell said. “Who's coming back, (and) who can we get? You try to hurry and build that chemistry. I can't talk enough about the character of this team. We've had injuries, we've had sicknesses, we've had people go down and people come together. Let's find a way, let's be relentless and most importantl­y let's be some Mississipp­i State Bulldogs.

“Let's just prove people wrong. We've been enjoying the journey. When the season comes to an end, we'll reflect on that, but right now we're riding a wave and what a wave it is.”

For MSU fans, it felt like much longer than three years since the last visit to the tournament, but it had to feel like a lifetime for the Bulldogs' first opponent. MSU will meet the Fighting Illini of Illinois in the play-in game this evening in South Bend, Ind., and Illinois is having a season to remember.

First-year head coach Shauna Green put together an even more remarkable opening season for a Illinois team that hasn't had success to this level in 20 years. The last tournament experience for Illinois was 2003, but this year's team has had a great year with a 22-9 record and 11-7 mark in Big 10 play.

The Fighting Illini knocked off one of the best teams in the country in Iowa with the Hawkeyes' All-american Caitlin Clark. They took top five Indiana to the wire, beat Missouri on the road as well as a Nebraska team that beat the Bulldogs this year. One of the big reasons for the success of Illinois has been the transfer of guard Makira Cook with Green from Dayton.

Cook was the Most Improved Player in the A-10 last year and turned that into an even better year despite the upgrade in competitio­n. She finished first-team All-big 10 this year after averaging 17.9 points a game and 112 assists.

It's players like Cook that neutralize a bit of the impact that current MSU assistant Cori Irvin has in the situation. Irvin came from Illinois. The new staff, new mindset and several new players make for a brand new team, but Purcell and his staff went right to work on them at his house immediatel­y following the announceme­nt.

“It's interestin­g to say the least,” Purcell said. “We found out on (Sunday) night and my staff is unbelievab­le – we were already in the War Room. We immediatel­y logged in and started watching film. We're going to find a way. We'll put a scout together to give us a chance to win.”

State finished off the regular season and Southeaste­rn Conference Tournament with a 20-10 record and 9-7 finish. Purcell became the first Bulldog coach in school history to sport 20 wins in a season and the finish above .500 in SEC play was the first for the team since 2019-20.

While MSU had five wins in six games right before the end of the regular season, it had to reset things a bit after the last two games. Falling 74-59 on the road in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, against a top 10 LSU team was nothing to be upset about, but it was a disappoint­ing effort against

the No. 13 seed Texas A&M in Greenville, South Carolina, at the SEC Tourney.

Those are games that Purcell has chosen to use as building blocks for the Bulldogs. A new season is now here and that presents new opportunit­ies.

“They're learning experience­s,” Purcell said. “First at LSU, what an awesome environmen­t that was with 15,000 (fans) on someone else's court. Women's basketball's landscape is different from the men. We're going to Notre Dame, so obviously they'll have their home crowd and Illinois is close so we'll expect a large crowd from them there. You've got to find a way there so we can reflect back to LSU.

“Texas A&M … it was March Madness. The beautiful thing about women's basketball is there's a lot of parity and that's a different team. They were good and clicking at the right time and our team had to learn that each possession matters and you have to avoid bad quarters. Sometimes, you need moments like that so you can make special things happen later.”

Game time today at the ironically named Purcell Pavilion in South Bend is set for 6 p.m. and fans can watch on ESPNU.

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