KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Victoria Vivians keeps her crown in her room, sitting on the dresser where she can see it.
"It means a lot, because I'd never done anything like that," Vivians said, smiling, in regard to having been Mississippi State's homecoming queen in October. "The team supported me; everybody on campus supported me. It was a special moment."
Yet Vivians, a senior guard for the Bulldogs, may end up with even more special bling by the end of this season. Mississippi State was 34-5 and national runner-up last season, but might these Bulldogs be even better?
So far, Mississippi State has been outstanding. Vivians led the way Sunday with 24 points and nine rebounds as No. 3 Mississippi State won 71-52 at No. 6 Tennessee.
The Bulldogs are 20-0 overall and 6-0 in the SEC. They are now just one of two remaining unbeaten teams nationally, along with No. 1 UConn, after No. 2 Louisville fell 50-49 to No. 12 Florida State on Sunday. The Bulldogs are sure to move another notch up the rankings when the Associated Press poll comes out Monday.
Mississippi State has never won an SEC regular-season or tournament title in women's basketball, but this season the Bulldogs could win both. Of course, there are still several big games ahead, including with Mississippi State's nemesis, South Carolina, which has beaten the Bulldogs 11 consecutive times, including in last season's NCAA final and SEC tournament title game, plus the regular-season matchup.
Mississippi State will host South Carolina on Feb. 5 in what will be one of the most anticipated games in Bulldogs history. There will be some potential challenges before that, too, including a trip to No. 11 Missouri on Feb. 1. But there' no doubt about it: This is a very, very good Mississippi State team that means business.
"We're experienced," Vivians said of a squad that starts four senior guards -- herself, Morgan William, Roshunda Johnson, and Blair Schaefer -- and a junior center, Teaira McCowan. "I feel like we are in control of what we have to do."
The 52 points Sunday was the Lady Vols' lowest total this season -- by 11 -- which is especially noteworthy when you consider Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer isn't too crazy about his team's defense overall.
That has been his hallmark as a coach, both in the lead role and as an assistant. He's a very tough taskmaster with defense. But after losing his grit-and-guts defender, guard Dominique Dillingham, to graduation along with defensive-minded post players Breanna Richardson, Chinwe Okorie, and Ketara Chapel, Schaefer knew the 2017-18 Bulldogs would need to play somewhat differently.
"This is the best offensive team I've had," Schaefer said. "We're really difficult to guard. When you've got kids out there who can all shoot it, and you have the kid inside, it's really made us hard to defend."
Hey, even defensive whiz Schaefer himself probably wouldn't enjoy trying to scheme against a team like his Bulldogs. He has William, the hero of last season's NCAA tournament run, steadily guiding the team at point guard. She had five assists Sunday and has 91 on the season; her assist-to-turnover ratio (4.1) leads the SEC.
There's Schaefer's daughter, Blair, known for her 3-point shooting. She has a team-high 50 treys, with four coming Sunday. There's Johnson, the fifth-year senior in her second season playing for Mississippi State after spending two years at Oklahoma State. She had 16 points against Tennessee and is averaging 11.9 this season, up from 6.3 last season when she mostly came off the bench.
There's the 6-foot-7 McCowan, who continues to improve her footwork and has become one of the premiere post players in the country. She had 12 points and 18 rebounds Sunday, leading the Bulldogs' 44-33 edge over the Lady Vols on the boards. Tennessee got only 11 second-chance points, thanks in large part to McCowan's dominating presence inside. McCowan leads the SEC in rebounding at 13.1 per game, and she's also averaging 20.4 points, which is third-best in the SEC.
And then there's Vivians, who at 19.5 PPG is fourth in the league in scoring. She was on Schaefer's radar the second he took the Mississippi State job in 2012. She scored 5,745 points at Scott Central High in Carthage, Mississippi, and has continued her high-scoring ways for the Bulldogs.
What stands out about Vivians this season, though, is her efficiency. She was known more as a high-volume shooter during her first three years, when she shot 37.4 percent from the field (30.5 from 3-point range).
But now as a senior, she's shooting 52.7 percent overall (147 of 279) and 40.2 percent from behind the arc (37 of 92). At 6-foot-1, she's an intimidating matchup for defenders because of her range and ability to get to the rim.
"I feel like I'm taking better shots, but I'm getting easier shots by attacking the basket more," said Vivians, who definitely did that against Tennessee. "And my teammates are finding me on the outside when I'm open. Me being more precise where I shoot and how I shoot -- not rushing things -- has made my percentage go up."
Sunday was the end of a tough stretch of games for Tennessee, which went 1-3 against ranked teams Texas A&M, South Carolina, Notre Dame and Mississippi State. And the victory, against the Gamecocks, came with South Carolina senior star A'ja Wilson out. Two weeks ago, the Lady Vols were undefeated; now they're 16-3 overall and 4-2 in a tough-as-nails SEC.
For the Tennessee freshmen, every game is a learning experience, and that was evident as they went against Mississippi State's seniors. But even some of the Lady Vols' more experienced players struggled, as senior Jaime Nared and junior Meme Jackson were a combined 4-of-24 from the field. Redshirt senior center Mercedes Russell was 7-of-9 from the field for 16 points, but as has been the case during these past four games, the Lady Vols had a difficult time getting her the ball as much as coach Holly Warlick wants.
Sunday's game also was an indicator of the way the tide has turned in the league in recent years. Mississippi State was 0-36 against Tennessee until getting its first victory in the series in 2016. Now, the Bulldogs have beaten the Lady Vols in four of their past five meetings, including two years in a row here in Knoxville.
Tennessee beat the Bulldogs in Starkville, Mississippi, in the regular-season finale last year, which kept Mississippi State from sharing the SEC title with South Carolina. But that loss is something that has kept motivating the Bulldogs -- through last year's postseason and so far through this season.
"It was about toughness, competing and rebounding today," Schaefer said. "I just loved my kids today -- all the hustle plays, I really felt like we got. We set the tone early with [several] offensive rebounds on one possession. Everybody has seen that happen for the team wearing orange for many, many years. For us to come in and establish that early, I was really proud of our kids."