DALLAS—Inside the Mississippi State huddle, amid the intense final seconds of overtime and with a deafening crowd roar swirling around, Vic Schaefer looked two or three of his players straight in the eyes, and one by one, gave them the same exhortation:
“You were BUILT for this! You were BUILT for this! You were BUILT for this!”
His players had been delivering blow after blow to UConn’s 111-game winning streak and its aura of invincibility in the national semifinals, and had taken almost as many blows in return.
The Bulldogs were leading 64-63 when a whistle blew and game officials went to the television monitors. Moments later, Mississippi State senior guard Dominique Dillingham was called for a flagrant foul for landing an elbow to the throat of UConn’s Katie Lou Samuelson fighting for a rebound.
Whether it was a “letter of the law” call or not, a magisterial game almost was decided by a travesty. But the inexplicable pace and turn of events in this game had 26.6 more seconds to play out.
Samuelson tied the game up with one free throw, but UConn turned the ball over when Morgan William took a charge from Saniya Chong.
Then William, fresh off a 41-point performance against Baylor in the Elite 8, took—and made—the biggest shot of her life.
During another timeout, Schaefer looked her in the eyes and told her she was going to win this one, too.
After taking a pass from Dillingham, she drifted to the right of the key and heaved a 15-foot pull-up jumper over Chong that bounced in off the rim as the final horn sounded.
Mississippi State 66, Connecticut 64.
“I just shot the ball,” said William, a 5-foot-5 tireless fireball. “I know coach said one shot. I didn’t want to give them too much time to shoot the ball, end up going to a second overtime. Just happened to be perfect timing.”
It’s also perfect timing for a new scenario in a sport dominated by the familiarity of UConn, which inflicted a 98-38 humiliation upon the Bulldogs in the Sweet 16 last year.
“You have to be careful when you start talking about people that you really don’t know about,” Schaefer said. “If all you’re doing is evaluating what you see on TV, and you don’t really know what’s inside somebody’s breastplate, you better be careful.”
In an all-SEC final for the national championship on Sunday, Mississippi State will face South Carolina (32-4), which gutted out a 62-53 win over Stanford.
The “heart and pride” combination Schaefer referenced often was reflected in a masterful defensive game plan that threw UConn out of its precision halfcourt passing and ball reversal. Mississippi State also bothered UConn with its size (6-foot-7 sophomore Teaira McCowan had 10 points and 8 rebounds, many of them in the critical stretches near the end).
Not only did the Bulldogs get 21 more shots than UConn (67 to 46), they also forced the Huskies into 17 turnovers and limited them to only 11 assists.
“They deserved to win,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “They beat us. We had our chances. They took us away from the things that we like to do. We didn’t have the kind of maturity that you need to win at this level this time of the year.”
That’s a factor Auriemma alluded to on Thursday, on how his young team weathered a rugged non-conference schedule to breeze into the Women’s Final Four with a 36-0 record and favored for a fifth consecutive national championship.
With the exception of junior guard Kia Nurse, these Huskies had little Final Four experience, and it showed.
Meanwhile, Mississippi State (34-4) wasn’t allowed to forget its last game against UConn. Showing his team the film “Miracle” didn’t prove to be an inspiration, so Schaefer’s spent plenty of time since then showing his team film of their real-life horror flick at the hands of the Huskies.
“Like coach said, it was personal,” said junior Victoria Vivians, who scored 19 points before fouling out early in overtime. “We had to prove that we’re a way better team than last year.”
The Bulldogs led for most of the first half, including a 16-point gap at 29-13 that represented the biggest deficit for UConn all season.
Whenever the Huskies went on a run, Mississippi State snuffed them out, or at least slowed them down.
“Being ahead at the beginning, keeping a lead, takes off a lot of pressure,” said Vivians, who had a couple of run-busting shots of her own, including a spinning drive to give the Bulldogs a 56-52 lead.
Then UConn went on 7-0 burst to go ahead 59-56 with two minutes left in overtime, but would never lead again.
“I feel like we earned respect tonight,” said William, who scored 13 points. “You know, people didn’t believe in us. But it didn’t faze us. We just had to go out there and play.”
Schaefer said that’s how his veteran team has approached nearly every game, an attitude forged out of a painful end to last season.
“The moment last year was a nightmare,” Schaefer said. “It’s in the back of your mind. But I told them before the game, ‘Who’s responsible for fear?’ If you’ve got fear in your heart, you got fear in your mind, who’s putting it there?”
As it turned out, they played as if they had nothing to fear.
“We believed in our locker room we could get it done,” Schaefer said. “This year, I wasn’t showing ‘Miracle.’ We weren’t watching any movies, I wasn’t talking about the Philistines slaying giants, although it was in the back of my mind.
“We beat the greatest team with the greatest streak in the history of sports.”
Said Auriemma: “Nobody’s won more than I’ve won. I understand losing, believe it or not. I know how to appreciate when other people win.”