COLUMBUS, Ohio – Mississippi State got a monster game, 21 points and 25 rebounds, from All-American post player Teaira McCowan and needed every last one of both in a 73-63 overtime victory over Louisville Friday night.
The Bulldogs got 25 points from All-American Victoria Vivians before she fouled out. State needed all those, as well.
State also needed Roshunda Johnson, one of the nation’s best 3-point shooters, to make the biggest 3-pointer of her life to send the game into overtime. Thanks to a timely screen from McCowan, Johnson had an open look and she nailed it.
But here’s the deal: The Bulldogs needed all that – and they needed more, much more.
They needed Jordan Danberry, who averaged only nine minutes a game this season, but played 26 minutes this night and made every one of them count. Danberry was called on to guard Louisville All-American Asia Durr and she did it about as well as it can be done. Danberry, a junior transfer from Arkansas, also scored 10 points, stole the ball three times and made four of five free throws, all at crunch time.
“Jordan was a difference for us tonight in many ways and on both ends of the court,” Vic Schaefer said afterward.
It didn’t surprise Blair Schaefer, Vic’s daughter.
Said Blair, “Jordan kicks our butts every day in practice. We know what she can do.”
And so, the 37-1 Bulldogs advance to Sunday’s national championship game against Notre Dame, which stunned Connecticut later Friday night in another overtime game so similar to when State knocked off UConn in the semifinals at Dallas a year ago. Believe it or not, that was the last time State played an overtime game until this one.
To compete Sunday, the Bulldogs will have to recover from one of the most physically demanding semifinal games imaginable. Louisville, which finished 36-3, gave State all it wanted and more. The Cardinals guard you every bit as hard as the Bulldogs do. As Louisville coach Jeff Walz put it, “What a great, great ball game. I mean, back and forth runs by both teams. I thought we competed, played our hearts out. I thought they played their hearts out. Just an unbelievable game.”
As Walz talked, some of his players, including the great Durr, cried.
Continued Walz, “Athletics is a wonderful thing. It’s a great thing, boy, but there’s some ups and downs that just kick you square in the ass, and right now is one of those.”
State had to overcome so much to win this one. The Bulldogs missed their first 10 shots. They trailed for much of the game. They trailed by five points in the second quarter and then by seven points, 53-46, with seven minutes to play.
But as both coaches would say, this was a game of spurts and, down by seven, the Bulldogs scored the next eight to take the lead on still another put-back by McCowan.
Louisville would not go quietly. In fact, Myisha Hines-Allen scored a layup with 11 seconds left to give the Cardinals a 59-56 lead.
Vic Schaefer called a timeout and drew up a play. It was a doozy. It called for his daughter to be the decoy, running hard off screens to the right side of the 3-point arc. Much of the Louisville defense went with her. Johnson, who was only one of five from the field to that point, then ran the other way, off the screen set by McCowan.
Morgan William passed the ball to Johnson, who made the biggest shot of her life in what would have been her last college game if she missed.
The Bulldogs out-scored the Cardinals 14-4 in overtime, and here’s what you need to know about that. There were 13 rebounds, total, for both teams in overtime. McCowan, who never took a rest this night, got seven of those. She also blocked two shots and scored three points. She was clearly exhausted but she just kept going, kept stepping up.
She was remarkable, as she has been this entire tournament. In State’s last three games, all against splendid teams, McCowan has scored 69 points and pulled down 71 rebounds. I repeat: seventy-one rebounds.
“She’s an absolute monster,” Vic Schaefer said. “I wouldn’t trade her for anybody.”
As good as McCowan was – and few post players in memory have been more dominant – State needed something extra Friday night.
Danberry provided. And this was the first time this writer has ever asked a ballplayer about his or her hair-do after a game. If you saw it, you know why I asked. Danberry has a “do” that features what looks like two orange tennis balls near the back of her head.
“Puff balls,” she said. “They’re called puff balls. I made them out of my pig tails.”
She shouldn’t change a thing.