Mississippi State guard Morgan William, left, is consoled by teammate Blair Schaefer, right, in the locker room after the team’s loss to South Carolina.

DALLAS – Vic Schaefer’s accomplished Mississippi State team prides itself on defense, efficient offense, rebounding and relentless effort.

South Carolina, with the national championship on the line, was superior in all categories Sunday night and claimed the big trophy with a 67-55 victory at the American Airlines Center.

Gamecocks’ All American A’Ja Wilson scored 23 points, pulled down 10 rebounds, blocked four shots and made two steals. She won the game is what she did. South Carolina outscored State 42-20 in the paint – and there you have it.

“We don’t win games when we don’t win the paint,” Schaefer said. This night, that phase of the game wasn’t even close.

Rick Cleveland

Sometimes, the other guy – or woman – is better. South Carolina, which didn’t make a 3-point shot and tried only three, was better. Or, as Schaefer put it: “We were half a step late all day.”

The flip side: The Gamecocks were half a step faster. State’s guards couldn’t stay in front of South Carolina’s guards. That includes Morgan William, State’s magical little point guard, who had become the darling of this NCAA Tournament.

“We couldn’t stop their dribble penetration,” Schaefer said, without naming names. “When you’re soft on the ball it’s hard to get the four behind you to play really hard.”

Schaefer clearly replaced William with Jazzmun Holmes in an effort to plug a leaking defense. William, who played only eight minutes in the second half, finished with just six points and four assists.

“Jazzmun went out there and did a good job,” William said afterward. “She had energy, which was what coach was looking for. She did good, she went three for five from the field, she was putting pressure on the ball and scoring points, so I can’t be mad. It’s what was best for the team.”

A quick glance at the final statistics tells the story: 40-27, Gamecocks, in rebounding; South Carolina 45.5 percent shooting, State 34.5 percent; and 8-2, South Carolina, in fast break points. Again, South Carolina won every category.

This is nothing new. South Carolina has now won 11 straight over State, three straight this season. In those three games, State, which averages 76.5 points a game, scored 55 points per.

Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer reacts to a play during the first half in the final against South Carolina.

“Those kids guard your butt,” Schaefer said of the Gamecocks, and he was dead-on.

South Carolina led 18-14 after one quarter, 36-26 at halftime and 52-44 after three quarters.

State cut it to 54-50 three minutes into the final quarter. The huge throng of State fans was on its feet, with something to cheer and practically pleading for another heroic finish. State actually got two shots at the basket, down by four. But Victoria Vivians, who led the Bulldogs with 12 points, missed a long three-pointer and Breanna Richardson missed a well-guarded layup. Two quick South Carolina baskets made it 58-50.

Said Schaefer, “That’s where the game got away from us.”

That’s where the national championship dream died, as well.

But, said Schaefer, “We’ll be back.”

“We’ve got a heckuva team coming back and the nation’s 19th ranked recruiting class coming in,” Schaefer said.

He loses four seniors – Dominique Dillingham, Ketara Chapel, Breanna Richardson and Chinwe Okorie, who were part of 111 victories. That’s nearly 28 per season if you’re keeping score.

“These seniors are very, very special,” Schaefer said. “They believed in a vision five years ago really when we recruited them. That’s when it wasn’t easy to believe. … These kids believed. They made it happen. They’re always going to have a special place in my heart.

“Today doesn’t define us. It certainly doesn’t define this team or this season.”

No doubt, it was the best team in Mississippi State history, by far the most accomplished.

South Carolina, in the end, was just better.

• • •

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 rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

Check out other news at mississippitoday.org and follow us on Twitter @MSTODAYnews.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.

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