GREENVILLE, S.C. — Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer has reached this point before. He'd like a much different ending today at the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship.
Teaira McCowan had 27 points and 16 rebounds while teammate Anriel Howard had 19 points and 10 boards as the fifth-ranked Bulldogs pulled away from Missouri 71-56 on Saturday to advance to their fourth consecutive finals appearance. And Schaefer urged his team to take that last step to a title after losing the past three championship games to South Carolina.
"I'm tired of having confetti hit my backside as I walk to the locker room," Schaefer said.
He told his players soon after the game. "It's one more for the rest of your life," he said. "What have you got?"
In McCowan and Howard, the Bulldogs (29-2) have one of the most potent combos in the SEC. The two have combined for 89 points and 45 rebounds in two tournament games. And the two are developing a stronger bond each time they hit the court, Schaefer said.
"They're finally getting some chemistry between them," he said. "Enjoying the success of each other."
McCowan is the 6-foot-7 force underneath who won SEC player of the year this week. Howard is a grad transfer from Texas A&M who has worked to fit into a veteran team that had reached the Final Four each of the previous two seasons.
"To be able to be out there together every day (at practice), you'll get chemistry eventually," Howard said. "We're showing we can be a pretty good duo."
They were that against Missouri (23-10), the only SEC opponent to defeat them the past two regular seasons.
Mississippi State will face 10th-seeded Arkansas for the SEC tournament title. The Razorbacks needed three upsets over seventh-seeded Georgia, second-seeded South Carolina, the four-time defending SEC tournament champion; and on Saturday, a 58-51 victory against No. 15 and third-seeded Texas A&M.
Arkansas (20-13) is the lowest seed to ever make the SEC finals.
Sophie Cunningham scored a season-high 33 points for Missouri (23-10). She had five of the Tigers' nine 3-pointers before fouling out.
Cunningham became Missouri's all-time points leader in the semifinal loss. Cunningham has 2,157 points, surpassing Joni Davis' mark of 2,126 set from 1981-85. Cunningham was pleased, but not ready to focus on the achievement.
"I'm frustrated right now," she said.
Cunningham was her team's lone double-digit scorer.
The Tigers bettered Mississippi State down low in their last meeting, McCowan bothered by fouls. This time, McCowan and Howard were relentless in attacking the basket and Mississippi State doubled up Missouri in points in the paint, 48-24.
Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said her team tried to attack McCowan in a similar fashion without much success.
"We had our hands full," she said. "We just didn't do a good job with that."
When Missouri cut a 16-point lead down to 43-38 off Cunningham's 11 straight points late in the third quarter, SEC player of the year McCowan powered an 11-3 surge with eight points.