Mississippi State 66, UConn 64 in overtime.
And the game was every bit as wild as that score, with that kind of streak and a national title game berth on the line, would indicate. Mississippi State raced out to a 16-point lead. UConn, of course, stormed back. And then, in a moment that will be playing on highlight reels for as long as any of us will live, the Bulldogs’ Morgan William, the tiniest player on the court, hit the biggest shot of her life -- a pull-up, buzzer-beating jumper that sent a shock wave through the entire sports landscape.
“No one in the country thought that could happen,” said Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer. “We beat the greatest team with the greatest streak in the history of sports.”
You can say that again.
Again, for as long any of us live, we will, in all likelihood, never see a stretch of dominance like the one we’ve spent the last three years watching UConn contruct. That it’s over is still unfathomable. And yet, throughout this season there were signs that the impossible -- otherwise known as a a Huskies loss -- was at least possible.
This was not one of those UConn teams we’ve grown accustomed to that just absolutely pounded everything in front of them. Sure, they were undefeated to this point. But there are no obvious all-time greats on this team. no Maya Moores. No Diani Taurasis. No Rebecca Lobos. The Huskies were pushed, for real, a handful of times. And it finally happened.
So Mississippi State is on to the national title game. The Bulldogs are a hell of a team that just played a hell of game, and for that they deserve all the praise one can heap onto a team that nobody gave a chance. But this was, is, still Connecticut’s night. It is a night to remember. A night to appreciate. A night to tell grandkids about.
The night the team that stood on top for longer than anyone could’ve ever imagine, finally fell.
|Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images|
DALLAS -- The strangest thing was that you couldn't hear the final buzzer. Only the roar.
You can always hear the final buzzer when Connecticut plays. It echoes through stands long since emptied on the road or mixes languidly with the sounds of a satisfied crowd at home.
It was only a rumor this night, its presence assumed because of precedent.
You couldn't hear it after Mississippi State guard Morgan William's shot arced through the air and dropped through the net with no time remaining in overtime. Not after No. 2 Mississippi State beat No. 1 Connecticut 66-64 to reach the first national championship game in program history. Not after the Bulldogs ended Connecticut's NCAA-record winning streak at 111 games and its run of consecutive national titles at four.
Mississippi State had a chance to end the streak a year ago, to cut it short before the celebrations and commemorations that defined this season. To halt history in its tracks.
The Bulldogs lost by 60 points. In the Sweet 16. They epitomized a sport without balance.
They found those 60 points somewhere in the intervening year. Well, 12 months and five days. For most of which time the number "60" hung in the team's weight room as a reminder. They made up all 60 points in 40 minutes of regulation in the American Airlines Center.
Then they played five more minutes to find the final two points needed to complete one of the most remarkable year-to-year reversals -- and one of the greatest games -- in tournament history.
William's shot silenced Connecticut. And brought the rest of women's basketball to its feet.
"I feel like we earned respect tonight," said William, whose 13 points this night will be as famous as her 41 in the regional final against Baylor. "You know, people didn't believe in us. But it didn't faze us. We just had to go out there and play. I feel like it showed we're better than what everybody thinks."
The sound that instead rolled through the arena Friday night was one of adrenaline and amazement. It was the product of more than 20,000 people watching a team stand up to Connecticut. Of seeing a team that could so easily have been a valiant loser refuse that, too.
This wasn't a well-place stone from a slingshot felling a giant. Mississippi State had to take down this Goliath by hand. The hard way.
Teaira McCowan, the 6-foot-7 post who took over a Sweet 16 game and who presented a matchup Connecticut didn't have the personnel to counter, picked up her second foul setting a screen before the game was even three minutes old and sat the rest of the first half.
A lead that reached 16 points at one stage evaporated. Mississippi State became the first team this season to both take and lose a double-digit lead against Connecticut.
One shot to win, the shot every team dreams it will get the chance to take against Connecticut, went for naught at the end of regulation, William blocked by Gabby Williams in the closing seconds with the score tied.
Victoria Vivians, Mississippi State's leading scorer in this game with 19 points and the person who hit the late 3-pointer in regulation that ultimately got her team to overtime, fouled out a minute into the extra period.
"We understood people were saying it wasn't possible for anybody to do it, except for Baylor or South Carolina. But just because we don't have any All-Americans doesn't mean that we don't have heart or we don't have the tenacity to make it happen."
Mississippi State's Blair Schaefer, on how most didn't think beating UConn was possible
The call that could have lingered in infamy, a debatable flagrant foul on Dominique Dillingham for an elbow to the throat of Connecticut's Katie Lou Samuelson in the final minute of overtime, went against the underdog. Samuelson hit two free throws to tie the game and the Huskies still had possession of the ball to try and put down the Bulldogs once and for all.
So much for a team needing to play the perfect game to stop the streak. Mississippi State just played its game.
Vivians hit a 3-pointer to open the scoring in the first minute. When Samuelson hit an early 3-pointer, McCowan answered to retake the lead. When she left in foul trouble, Chinwe Okorie took her place and converted a 3-point play that launched a 14-0 run by the Bulldogs.
They led by nine points after one quarter. A year earlier, Mississippi State trailed 13-0 early in a regional semifinal in Bridgeport, Connecticut. It never again was within single digits, the lead something less than 13 points for just 19 seconds.
"From warm-ups, we were intimidated -- a ball went over half court and we were too scared to go get the ball," said Blair Schaefer, the coach's daughter, of the 2016 game. "I don't know why. I think because of the names that were on that team, we were just internally scared. And this year, we had no fear. We knew what we had. And we understood people were saying it wasn't possible for anybody to do it, except for Baylor or South Carolina. But just because we don't have any All-Americans doesn't mean that we don't have heart or we don't have the tenacity to make it happen."
Heart and tenacity are good. Defense is even better. Connecticut had to work for every point it scored. Williams, in particular, forced to show off just how athletically superior she is in carving points out of nothing on drives and pull-ups.
"We didn't want them to play pretty ball," Dillingham said. "They average 25 assists a game. We wanted them to put it on the ground. We wanted them to create for themselves. We didn't want them passing the ball around. We want to deny the floor."
They still got assists on half their field goals, but they only made 20 field goals. It was strange to see, but Connecticut was the team forced to improvise and play one-on-one basketball, while Mississippi State moved the ball with relative comfort around the perimeter.
"We deny one pass away," explained Bulldogs assistant Carly Thibault of the technique behind Dillingham's edict. "We deny the floor. We don't let them get into the flow of their offense. They can't just turn the ball, swing the ball and get ball movement that way. If you're going to turn the ball, you've got to put the ball on the floor to do that because we're going to deny one pass away."
"I feel like everything happens for a reason. We lose by 60 last year, we go into the offseason with a mentality that we're not satisfied."
The game was played the way they wanted it to be played. When Connecticut finally made it back from that 16-point deficit and took the lead at 41-40, William hit a layup to answer. There was to be no wave from Connecticut, just the tide ebbing and flowing this way and that.
"We knew they were going to make a run; they're a team full of runs," Dillingham said. "I think we just couldn't get on our heels - we never got on our heels. We just kept being aggressive."
A lot of people say that about Connecticut. Few lived it out during a streak short on close calls.
Vivians scoffed when asked if Mississippi State could have played this game without the experience of the game a year ago. Of course these Bulldogs could still have pulled this off. That was not a consensus opinion.
"I wish we didn't have it," Breanna Richardson said. "But at the same time, it gave us motivation."
Women's basketball has been waiting for teams to respond to the challenge thrown down by Connecticut. What's best for the sport isn't that one program get worse but that the rest get better. For one night, the basketball court in Dallas offered a condensed view of that process. Mississippi State saw the standard a year ago. It met the standard Friday night.
"I feel like everything happens for a reason," Dillingham said. "We lose by 60 last year, we go into the offseason with a mentality that we're not satisfied. In order to beat a team like UConn, we have to be perfect, work on things every day -- rebounding, boxing out. We have to be good at them."
They had to stand up to Connecticut.
Coach Vic Schaefer appeared in danger of drawing a technical foul when referees informed both coaches of the decision to assess the flagrant foul after video review in the final minute of overtime. He stomped his feet and used some succinctly choice words to express his opinion until first director of operations Maryann Baker and then daughter Blair steered him to the huddle.
At least according to one of those in the middle of it, the message was short on Xs and Os.
"We've got to face adversity, like we've faced all year," Richardson said of Schaefer's instructions in that timeout. "Don't let them take it from us. Let's go get it."
A Connecticut pass slipped away from Saniya Chong on the ensuing possession. And after an additional 30-second timeout, William let loose the shot that floated up and over Williams and down through the net. Followed by a roar.
"I don't even think that was all our fans," Richardson said. "I feel like the whole place was just excited about the moment."
It was a moment that was a long time coming, a worthy record holder beaten by a worthy foe.