STARKVILLE, Miss. — Teaira McCowan's first workout at Mississippi State was supposed to be simple.
Associate head coach Johnnie Harris wanted the 6-foot-7 recruit to work on one of the most fundamental moves a post player can make — the drop step. Harris gave a few instructions, stepped back and waited for McCowan's first move.
The freshman responded with a blank stare.
"She was extremely raw," Harris said. "But she had all the tools."
A little more than two years later, Mississippi State's patience and McCowan's work ethic are paying off — big time. The junior is averaging nearly 20 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks a game as the anchor for the No. 2 Bulldogs, who have a 23-0 record, including a 9-0 mark in the Southeastern Conference, heading into their showdown with No. 7 South Carolina (18-4, 7-2) on Monday.
Mississippi State survived one of its toughest challenges on Thursday, rallying to beat No. 15 Missouri 57-53. McCowan was once again at the center of everything, finishing with 17 points and 17 rebounds.
"She's a big-game player. I've learned that in the three years I've had her," Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said. "The bigger the moment, the better the opposition, the better she typically plays. That makes her a gamer in my book. It's always good to have kids who are not afraid of the moment."
McCowan's improvement has coincided with Mississippi State's rise as a national power.
As a freshman, she came off the bench and averaged 6.6 points and 5.6 rebounds. Mississippi State finished with a 28-8 record and advanced to the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16.
Last season as a sophomore, McCowan averaged 8.7 points and 7.1 rebounds. Her production improved as the season progressed and by the NCAA Tournament she was a critical presence in the Bulldogs' lineup. She had 26 points and 12 rebounds in the program's Sweet 16 win over Washington and was a force as they advanced all the way to the national championship game before losing to South Carolina.
This year, she's turned into a one of the best players in the game.
She already has 16 double-doubles and has teamed with senior guard Victoria Vivians to become one of the most formidable offensive duos in the country.
"At the beginning of this season I kind of shocked myself," McCowan said. "I didn't really know I had the skills to do the things I'm doing."
McCowan's been so good that her WNBA future has suddenly become a hot topic. She's already 21 years old and turns 22 in September, which makes her eligible for the WNBA draft if she chooses to skip her senior season.
But McCowan said she's committed to staying with the Bulldogs for four seasons.
"Me and my mom have already talked about it," McCowan said. "I'm going to get my degree first."
McCowan's improvement has been so impressive so fast that it's hard to believe her Mississippi State career was nearly over before it started. As a freshman, she came into Schaefer's office during the fall and said she wanted to go home.
McCowan grew up in the small town of Brenham, Texas, and the transition to college was tough. As a 6-7 young woman, the introverted McCowan had a hard time blending in around campus and she was self-conscious about her height. Basketball was tough, she was struggling academically and was homesick — missing her mom and four younger brothers.
"There were plenty of days I was crying in the shower," McCowan said. "I would say to myself 'I can't do it. I'm coming home.'"
But Harris and Schaefer convinced her that Mississippi State was a place that could become a second home.
"The kid just needed to know that people had confidence in her, loved her, cared about her deeply and wanted her to be successful," Schaefer said. "And we were going to put the time in with her."
These days, McCowan smiles much more easily and is much more self-confident. She's a fan-favorite around Humphrey Coliseum at home games, drawing huge cheers when she swats an opposing team's shot into the stand or makes a smooth move in the post.
"My teammates were there for me when times got hard and so were my coaches," McCowan said. "Them building my confidence is why I'm where I'm at today."