DALLAS—I can’t get Morgan William out of my mind. The sight of her in agony on the Mississippi State bench Sunday in the fourth quarter is one of the most haunting moments in NCAA women’s tournament history.
And it came less than 48 hours after she turned in one of the most dazzling moments in NCAA women’s tournament history.
This was supposed to be the column about Dawn Staley finally winning a national championship as a coach, exactly 25 years after her last attempt to do so as a player fell short.
This was supposed to be the column about how the University of South Carolina ascended to the top of the women’s college basketball world, fulfilling Staley’s distant vision when she took the job nine years ago at a school that showed little promise of being a place for something like that to happen.
This was supposed to be the column about the brilliance of A’ja Wilson and Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis and Bianca Cuevas-Moore and the rest of a Gamecocks squad that did something that’s very difficult to do—defeat a familiar opponent three times in one season, with the last one for an NCAA title.
Their 67-55 win over Mississippi State was a well-deserved one, encapsulating a long climb by Staley, her players and an institution that boasts the biggest fan base in the country. It’s a stirring phenomenon in a sport that needs more of these developments. I don’t want to take anything away from what they’ve accomplished, and the promise this program holds for the future.
South Carolina is loaded, with all of the key players during their post-season run returning, and figures to be a favorite to repeat as national champions.
However, the mystifying disappearance of Morgan William, Mississippi State’s point guard, in the fourth quarter is the memory of this game that I find inescapable. I’m not trying to cherry-pick something negative; sometimes the ordeals of those on the losing side are more compelling stories.
The legendary journalist Gay Talese once spent five months in China tracking down and interviewing Liu Ying, the Chinese soccer player whose penalty kick was saved by U.S. goalkeeper Briana Scurry in the 1999 Women’s World Cup final. That proved to be the slender margin of victory.
He wasn’t being a vulture, but a writer (although there’s often a lot of overlap), and he came up with a hell of a story.
I don’t want to be a vulture about what happened to Morgan William, but frankly, I find the responses that she and coach Vic Schaefer gave for her benching even more baffling.
How can a coach sit the player who lifted her team over UConn with her buzzer-beating shot, and her 41 points over Baylor in the Elite 8, and her incredibly inspiring example? The heart and soul of a team riding into its first Women’s Final Four, another SEC program that had enjoyed little success until Schaefer arrived five years ago?
With a national championship on the line?
Yes, William looked exhausted even in the first half, and not just because of Cuevas-Moore’s stifling defense. The emotional swings of a late Friday game, Saturday media obligations and preparing for a Sunday championship tilt might have been too much.
William had a very bright spotlight aimed in her direction, and a seemingly unflappable player flinched. It happens to the greatest of athletes. When she flung up a poor driving shot right before halftime that didn’t draw iron, I wondered if she had any mental or physical energy left in the tank.
Somehow, getting William back in the game, and involved in it, had to happen. Victoria Vivians had a bad shooting night, and Mississippi State didn’t have the scoring options of South Carolina.
When the Bulldogs closed their deficit to 54-50, I thought a final burst from William would be forthcoming. That never happened.
What a turn of events.
Schaefer’s explanation: “I thought we had a couple kids today that just didn’t quite have the energy level that we needed.”
The backup point guard he brought in, Jazzmun Holmes, did score a few baskets, and aided Mississippi State’s comeback to some degree. But the dynamic spark the Bulldogs have ridden in this post-season was not summoned.
William said she wasn’t mad she didn’t get back in the game in the final 10 minutes, and wasn’t going to question her coach’s decision.
“Jazzmun went out there and did a good job. She had energy, which was what coach was looking for,” William said. “I can’t be mad. It’s what was best for the team. She went out there and played great.”
Imagine this happening at the men’s Final Four. The coach in question would be vigorously questioned, if not excoriated (probably in excess). Here, not so much.
This is the point in already-rambling column where I feel like I’m sticking my nose where it doesn’t belong. I’m a vulture-writer, not a coach, nor was I a player, and I want to respect the coach-player-locker room dynamic. Whatever words, or signals, that may have passed between William and Schaefer will likely stay between them, and those wearing Mississippi State maroon.
I’ve greatly admired what Schaefer has done in Starkville and his blunt, forthright approach. He’s a demanding, no-bull taskmaster. If a kid is copping an attitude, it’s understandable why a coach would cool off a player whose mind wasn’t where it needed to be.
William’s body language was bad, her energy level was bad, and those watching on television said they saw her roll her eyes at one point during all the frustration.
But to not put her back in the game at all, and apparently not consider it? Schaefer was asked again about keeping William on the bench, and eventually taking out the struggling Vivians.
“Again, we’re educating. This is an education process,” he said. “I was trying to get ’em going. Again, both ends of the floor is real important for us, for me as a coach. I try to hold people accountable.”
A teaching moment in an NCAA championship game is a commendable thing, and at the risk of second-guessing (which I guess I’m doing) I still don’t get it.
Wouldn’t that teaching moment also include trying to find a way to push William through her struggles, inspire her flagging confidence, summon the competitive streak of a player who embodies everything in a successful program but who’s having a bad game at the worst possible time? What is coaching if not this?
I had the best seat in the house on Friday, sitting right behind the Mississippi State bench, and heard Schaefer in the huddle, especially in overtime against UConn. What he said would make anybody want to go through a barricade for him.
Coaches, help me out here. What would you have done? Did Schaefer lose his nerve after such a valuable player melted down? Should he have given her a final chance to make an impression on a game that was still there for the taking? Am I wrong in suggesting he may have given up on a player when he most needed to have her back?
These aren’t rhetorical questions; I’m searching for honest answers here. Unless this was a serious act of insubordination (which it might be), this will remain a head-scratcher.
The way South Carolina was playing, inserting William in the lineup might not have made a difference. Wilson and Gray were spectacular, and Staley made sure to cite Cuevas-Moore’s incredible defensive job.
The knockout punch against Mississippi State’s most important player may have been delivered in South Carolina’s game plan. Schaefer said the loss “doesn’t define us,” and he’s probably right. He’s got William and Vivians and a talented cast coming back next season, as well as a solid recruiting class arriving.
I just wonder how his relationship with his point guard, who’s got one more season remaining, may be redefined by one sour moment in otherwise marvelous postseason.