Going into the UConn-Mississippi State match in the NCAA Women’s Final Four, nearly everyone in America had a pretty good idea of which team would come out on top.
For the Huskies, there was never any reason to be worried. Journalists have written about the one-sided dominance of NCAA women’s basketball, as University of Connecticut has run roughshod over every team under the sun. Could UConn beat your school’s men’s team? Hard to say. Could UConn beat the Minnesota Lynx? We can’t know for sure. The women in Hartford (Storrs, if you’re picky) constructed a program more legendary in accomplishment and terrifying in reputation than any men’s team has ever achieved. After all, just one year ago, they blew this same Bulldogs team out of the water, 98-38, and left the lesser team struggling to pick itself back up.
By contrast, the Mississippi State Bulldogs came in with less-than-stellar expectations. Sure, they were 33-4, a record to be respected by anyone, especially considering that works out to a .895 winning percentage. Yes, that’s right: the Bulldogs won nearly nine of every ten games, but were still somehow a significant underdog. I say “somehow”, but it’s obvious why the Bulldogs weren’t expected to come away with a win: no matter how strong their season had been, the longest they’d gone without a loss was 81 days. It’s a shame that nearly three months without a loss isn’t impressive enough to qualify the Bulldogs as the expected champion, but that’s the nature of playing against Connecticut; an 81-day winning streak is less than ten percent of what the Huskies had achieved, recording their most recent loss 865 days before they played Mississippi State.
It’d be foolish to categorize this game as some sort of fluke, and it’s detractory to the massive talent of the Mississippi State players and the terrific game-planning by head coach Vic Schaefer as well. UConn is a hard team to plan for. They’ve got talent at every position, because they can just about promise top high school prospects a ton of media coverage and a 97% chance at a championship or three. Beyond that, Geno Auriemma is a terrific coach in his own right; I’ve no doubt that UConn’s legacy has been incalculably aided by his voice on the sideline as much as by the women on the court. However, UConn also has weaknesses, and the Bulldogs capitalized on that. To watch the game was to watch frenetic defense at its finest, with State players swarming, poking, prodding, and otherwise harassing the ball handlers in UConn’s offense. They played a zone that somehow managed to leave only the desired players open, and would force a pass or a bad shot on more possessions than not. But most importantly, Mississippi State used its overwhelming physicality to generate second-chance points and keep UConn on their collective back foot.
And so Mississippi State entered the half in long-untouched and rarified air. They were ahead of the Huskies by eight points (the largest halftime deficit for Connecticut during the 111-game winning streak). However, the second half showed the toll that their hyperactive defense had taken; the Bulldogs were slow on switches, less active in lanes and on the glass, and the gritty play that had effectively taken UConn’s star shooter Napheesa Collins out of the game had all but vanished. Seasoned Connecticut seized the opportunity, and the eight-point margin had morphed into a tied game in roughly five minutes.
UConn starts 2nd half on 7-2 run, Mississippi State lead cut to 3. 38-35 7:22 left 3rd
It was then that I, along with most people, thought the magic was over. UConn had discovered themselves, and this game would morph into a blowout shortly.
But it didn’t happen.
State hung tight with Connecticut for the rest of the game, never trailing by more than three points in the second half. There were brief moments when UConn would hit a well-defended shot, and I caught myself wondering if Mississippi State’s spirit would break. Then the Bulldogs would rally, somehow getting to the free throw line or finding a way to get a high-percentage shot in the paint. They took 21 more shots than the Huskies, but the low field goal percentage was not as damaging as their extra opportunities were useful. More than just providing a sense of security for MSU’s shooters, the multitude of chances wore on the Connecticut defense. As the game progressed, it became obvious that it would come down to the wire, and that the two teams were simply racing to be on the advantageous side of that wire. And with time running down in the fourth, the chance for the final shot was in the Bulldogs’ hands. Morgan William — fearless, feisty, and full to her 5’1 brim with confidence — stepped forward for Mississippi State and took the shot. It missed, and again I found myself thinking that the momentum sat squarely with Gene and the Huskies.
That belief was reinforced as MSU’s leading scorer fouled out in the first 62 seconds of overtime. Victoria Vivians had been gargantuan as a consistent shooting presence for a team that was struggling to hit even open shots from the perimeter. With such a stagnant offense, losing a shot creator should have been a deadly blow. However, they were saved by their defensive intensity, which remained intact even as extra time pounded on. A flagrant foul by Dominique Dillingham sent UConn’s Katie Lou Samuelson to the line, where the former ESPN Freshman of the Year drained both. As the clock ticked down to :26, each team had scored just four points, both off of two free throws and one field goal.
The final 26 seconds were a tense affair. UConn was definitely proving more vulnerable than expected, but they were still shooting nearly 20 percent better from three-point range, with a storied coach and elite talent. With the ball still with the Huskies due to the aforementioned flagrant, it was near-inconceivable that anyone but UConn could walk away with the W. Of course, we should have known better. How many times had the belief in MSU waned, only to resurface moments later? The trend would continue, as it turned out. In an all-time moment of inexplicably poor decision-making, Saniya Chong drove to the basket with 14 seconds left, throwing up a wild shot that hurtled out of bounds. Breaking down the sequence, it goes something like this:
Perhaps she saw her matchup (5’5 Morgan William), and assumed she could exploit her three-inch height advantage at the rim. After all, she has space to run following the screen on the arc. However, after rounding the corner, she picks up too much momentum. It’s there that she finds William, who dove into the key after losing Chong on the high screen. With too much speed, and faced with a very sudden obstacle, Chong has no choice but to barrel directly into William and hurl the ball as close to the rim as she can. Of course, barrelling out of control is not conducive to accuracy, and the ball shoots straight forward and out of bounds. That would be Connecticut’s fatal mistake. The ball was now property of Mississippi State, with the game tied and 14 seconds remaining. This time, I had faith in the Bulldogs. 12 seconds on the clock as Mississippi State pushes the ball upcourt, and just 3.9 when the ball gets to MSU’s Williams. Her sequence is equally worthy of a breakdown:
When William’s shot went up, her body splayed in an effort to boost her tiny frame over the contest, there was no time to even consider shot selection. As quick as she released it, time expired and the shot rattled (and I mean rattled — it was no theatrical swish through the nylon) through the rim.
UConn is defeated, and the national championship will be devoid of a Huskies champion for the first time since 2012. Whether or not Mississippi State wins the title, they have made history as the David who toppled a seemingly immortal Goliath.