by Rebecca Harris
[originally posted on ncaa.com]
Finally, Mississippi State has the country’s and the basketball world’s attention.
A 66-64 overtime victory over top-ranked UConn tends to do that.
UConn held an NCAA-record winning streak of 111 games coming into last night’s national semifinals. Coach Geno Auriemma held the record for most tournament wins by a head coach. The Huskies had beaten opponents by 10, 20 and even 40 points. Just last year, the Huskies overpowered the Bulldogs by 60 points in the Sweet 16.
But it didn’t matter.
The only points that mattered were the ones declaring Mississippi State the winner, the ones sending the Bulldogs to the national championship.
It has been a long time coming for head coach Vic Schaefer, who has strategically built his Mississippi State team during his five-year tenure. Now, he has made program history three times in a row this postseason: First Elite Eight appearance, first Women’s Final Four, and now, first national championship game.
To Schaefer, “his kids” deserved a chance to have someone, anyone, believe in their talent and drive. To him, the newfound interest in the team is coming years too late.
“What an unbelievable gutsy performance that no one in the country, including y’all, thought would happen,” Schaefer remarked in his opening press conference statement.
The game featured two very different teams from last year’s tournament. UConn lost all-stars Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck. Meanwhile, Mississippi found itself with 11 returning players, athletes who knew each other, knew the system, and knew they did not want a repeat of the 2016 Sweet 16. Still, few believed that any team stood a chance against the historic UConn dynasty.
So, the Bulldogs decided it was time to change people’s minds about what Mississippi State basketball was and could do.
“I feel like we earned respect tonight,” Morgan William said.
She, more than anyone, deserves it. A blocked shot against Baylor sent her team to Dallas. A buzzer beater in overtime against UConn sent the Bulldogs to the championship. Two games against two powerhouses resulted in two wins.
“I looked at the basket, then I looked at the scoreboard, and I was like ‘Morgan did it again,’” Teaira McCowan said.
Chinwe Okorie said William has the “heart of a lion.”
The past few days, Schaefer’s players have repeated that playing for him instills that characteristic. He demands intensity and they want to give it to him.
“I’m telling you, if you don’t have the heart, if you don’t have competition in your mind, you cannot play for that man,” Okorie said. “He’s a great coach. He demands more. Sometimes it’s hard as a player but in life it pays off.”
Schaefer stressed the importance of making this game count, especially after last year’s embarrassing loss.
“Coach said this morning, his mindset said it was personal. He told us to take the same mindset coming in,” Breanna Richardson said.
Schaefer himself says his players’ ambition is the characteristic he admires most about this team.
“Their competitive spirit just cannot be denied.”
Now, it all comes down to Sunday. The championship game will be against a familiar foe, fellow SEC team South Carolina. The Gamecocks have won this season’s last two battles. So, while the victory over UConn means a lot to the team, it’s not the end of the road or the hard work.
“It’s been a long four years,” Dominique Dillingham said. “It’s been a rewarding four years. It’s crazy that it’s all come down to one game. It’s all or nothing, one game for the rest of your life.”