Inside the W with Michelle Smith: Vivians Sets Sights on Draft After Illustrious Career

COLUMBUS, OHIO – In the moments that followed Mississippi State’s overtime win over Louisville in the opening game of an extraordinary semifinal night at the Women’s Final Four last Friday, the Bulldogs’ locker room started to buzz.

Kobe Bryant was in the house, with his family, sitting near courtside.

Victoria Vivians bolted for the tunnel.

“Our game was over and he came up on the TV screen and somebody said ‘Kobe’s here.’ And I said, ‘I’ve got to get out there right now’,” Vivians said. “I had to leave. Somebody told me I had media to do and I said, ‘I’ve got to go’.”

Next thing she knew, she was face-to-face with her idol.

“I’ve always looked up to him, ever since I started focusing on basketball,” Vivians said. “I always wanted to be a player like him, a go-to player for my team. So, I was very excited.”

Vivians, the 6-foot-1 senior forward who came to Mississippi State as the best player in Mississippi high school basketball history, indeed transformed herself into a go-to player for the Bulldogs, capping her career with a second straight trip to the NCAA Championship game before MSU fell to Notre Dame 61-58 on Sunday night.

The two-time All-American averaged 19.8 points a game in her final season, leading the Bulldogs to a 37-2 record, the best record in school history.

The outgoing Southern girl who was named Mississippi State’s Homecoming Queen in the fall, has rounded out her game as she prepares for her opportunity in the WNBA. Vivians, projected as mid first-round pick in the WNBA Draft, is a talented scorer who can play at the 4, but will also give a team another offensive threat from the perimeter with her ability to shoot the three.

“Heading into this year, I knew I needed to be more consistent,” Vivians said. “My freshman to junior years, I was just out there playing, without a care in the world.”

In her final collegiate season, Vivians was set on playing with more of a purpose, as her team nursed the disappointment of losing last year’s NCAA title game to South Carolina and had their hearts set on taking another shot at a title.

“As a senior, I knew I had plans after college, and it was time for me to step my game up,” Vivians said. “I knew I needed to have better shot selection, better ball-handling, better finishing. I needed to be a better assists-player for my teammates, see the floor better.”

Vivians has become a more efficient shooter, boosting her field-goal percentage from 42.5 percent in her junior season to 48.6 percent as a senior. She has improved her shot selection, but it’s been a process.

“Her form’s always been great,” said Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer. “She’s a big-time, high-rise jump shooter. Hard to get to her. Big frame. It’s not mechanics for her a lot of times; it’s just selection sometimes and the contested shot.”

Schaefer put Vivians at the 4 this season, a spot he said she found “comfortable.”

Vivians also worked on improving herself defensively.

“I wanted to focus on being an all-around player, give them something to look for.”

Schaefer said Vivians has come a long way from the shoot-first-ask-questions-later player that came to Starkville as a highly touted freshman.

“She’s gone from being a volume shooter and gotta-score now, to understanding what shot selection is and enjoying the pass and the assist and being able to make it,” Schaefer said. “In her high school career, y’all, I’m telling you, if I didn’t see it 10 times, I saw it a hundred times. If she passed the ball there was a timeout, her coach met her at half court and she got a chewing. I had to break that. It’s hard to break when someone’s chewed out for passing the ball all their career. So, she’s learned to enjoy the assist. And we’ve put players with her that can finish.”

Schaefer said he has always coached Vivians with the next level in mind, understanding what she’s capable of.

“Realizing that at the next level, you’ve got to produce, you’ve got to do it their way or they will find somebody that will,” Schaefer said.

The coach said he looks forward to watching Vivians blossom as she gets to focus solely on her basketball career.

“When all she’s got to do is worry about wake up in the morning take care of her body and eat right and go work out and not have to worry about anything else,” Schaefer said. “Just being able to focus on her job. I think she’s still a long way from being the player that she can be. I think she’s really good right now. I think she’s going to be a heck of a pro. No doubt in my mind. And she’s going to do exactly what you want her to do all day, every day.”

As for that meeting with Kobe, Vivians flashed him a mega-watt smile and sheepishly asked him for a photo.

“He said ‘Good game’, and when he said that, I almost passed out. That he was watching me play, that was amazing,” Vivians said.

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a weekly column on throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.