Mississippi State stands up to Connecticut in epic upset
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 seed Mississippi State beat No. 1 seed 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 that 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-placed 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 center 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's attempt was blocked by Gabby Williams in the closing seconds with the score tied.
Victoria Vivians was Mississippi State's leading scorer in this game with 19 points, and she hit a late 3-pointer in regulation that ultimately got her team to overtime. Yet she 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 Mississippi State's Dominique Dillingham for an elbow to the throat of UConn'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 to 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, McCowan answered with a layup 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, and never again got within single digits.
"From warm-ups, we were intimidated -- a ball went over half court and we were too scared to go get the ball," said Mississippi State guard Blair Schaefer, coach Vic Schaefer'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 pullups.
"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."
The Huskies got 11 assists, but they made only 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 the Bulldogs 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 teams 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 for one program to get worse but for the rest to 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 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 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 X's and O's.
"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.