DALLAS – My question: How does a heart so obviously huge fit into a body so small?
Morgan William, the tiniest player on the court, late Friday night slayed the biggest giant in all of sports. She played 44 of 45 minutes – and in the last 12 seconds, she took a hard charge on one end to give Mississippi State a chance to win. She then nailed a 15-foot jump shot at the buzzer in overtime to give State one of the greatest athletic victories in the history of Mississippi sports.
State 66, Connecticut 64. Believe it. It happened before a crowd of 19,202 in American Airlines Center and a had-to-be spell-bound international television audience.
Connecticut’s 111-game win streak is no more. UConn will not win a 12th national title. The streak was ended by a valiant, under-valued team the Huskies swamped by 60 points in the NCAA Sweet 16 little more than a year ago.
“We beat the greatest team with the greatest streak in sports,” Vic Schaefer said. “And we beat the greatest coach in sports.”
“I hit the shot, that’s all I know,” William said. “I was in shock. I’m still in shock.”
Mississippi State, now 34-4, will play South Carolina Sunday for the national championship. I repeat: Mississippi State will play South Carolina Sunday for the national championship. Tipoff is set for 5 p.m.
My next question: How in the world does Vic Schaefer get his team ready to play less than 48 hours after all that happened Friday night? This was a game played with so much emotional stress, not to mention physical exertion. Can they possibly have anything left to give?
Schaefer believes they do.
“We play South Carolina, a great team, who has beaten us twice. We know what’s coming down the pike, we’ll be ready,” Schaefer said.
State overcame so much to win this one.
They overcame Teaira McCowan picking up two quick fouls and sitting out the last 17 minutes of the first half. They withstood a 12-0 UConn run in the second quarter. They overcame another huge UConn run in the third quarter when the Huskies turned a 36-28 halftime deficit into 40-39 lead. They overcame a 3-point UConn lead with just over two minutes to play in regulation. They withstood Victoria Vivians, their leading scorer with 19 points, fouling out with just under four minutes to play in overtime. And then, they overcame what seemed at the time the most cruel fate of all.
With State leading 64-62, Blair Schaefer missed a long 3-pointer. UConn rebounded and called timeout with 26 seconds left to play. During the timeout, officials looked at the replay of a collision that had happened with 53 seconds remaining, involving Dominique Dillingham and UConn’s Katie Lou Samuelson. Replays showed an inadvertent Dillingham elbow to the neck of Samuelson. Officials nonetheless ruled a flagrant foul. Samuelson, of course, made both free throws to tie the game and UConn also got ball possession.
That’s when William, listed generously at 5 feet, 5 inches, made the two game-winning plays. First, she forced a turnover by UConn point guard Saniya Chong. Then, she made the 15-footer over the hands of Gabby Williams, who is at least half a foot taller.
“That’s the shot we wanted and the person we wanted to take it,” Vic Schaefer said.
“The kid made a great play,” UConn coach Gene Auriemma said. “I thought we did a pretty good job defending her. That’s one of the toughest shots to make, from that distance, with that kind of pressure on you.”
“I always tell my team one play doesn’t cost you a game, but a lot of times, one play will win you a game and that’s exactly what they did.”
State took 21 more shots than UConn, out-rebounded the Huskies 37-31, had twice as many steals and limited the Huskies, who average 26 assists a game to just 11. Those are “effort” stats.
“I just knew if my kids would fight,” Vic Schaefer said. “Their compeititve spirit is unreal. What happened last year was such a nightmare. We got our pride stepped on. I just told them, ‘Who is responsible for fear. If you’ve got fear in your mind and heart, who puts it there?”
There was no fear in State. None. And there was certainly none in William, who finished with 13 points, six assists, three rebounds and one of the biggest buckets in the history of women’s basketball.
“I tried a layup at the end of regulation and they blocked it,” she said.
So, when she got another chance, she pulled up and shot the jumper instead.
“I knew it was going in,” Auriemma said.
Do you believe in miracles?
Perhaps the best answer: A lot more people do today than did yesterday.
Last year, before playing UConn, Schaefer showed his team “Miracle,” the movie about the U.S. hockey team that stunningly won the Olympic gold medal in 1980, defeating the heavily favored Russians. Not this year.
“Last year, I showed them ‘Miracle,’” Schaefer said. “This year, we’re living one.”
Rick Cleveland, Mississippi Today’s sports columnist, this year was named Mississippi Sportswriter of the Year — an honor he achieved for the 10th time — by the National Sports Media Foundation. Read his previous columns and his Sports Daily blog. Reach Rick at [email protected]
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