Mississippi State has one last hurdle in its run to national title

Published 9:45 pm Saturday, April 1, 2017

DALLAS (AP) — Vic Schaefer and his Mississippi State Bulldogs didn’t get much time to celebrate what might be the greatest shocker in women’s basketball history.

Not when there’s one more game to win, not when there’s a national championship on the line against Southeastern Conference rival South Carolina.

“They’re really grounded. Our kids know what’s coming down the pike,” he said. “They know now the prize now is in front of them; it’s attainable. We have one heck of a team to get ready for, a tremendous staff. They’re really, really good. But it’s down to the two of us.”

Right after Morgan William hit the winner to end Connecticut’s 111-game winning streak, the Bulldogs dogpiled at center court as if they had won the school’s first title.

“It felt like the national championship last night,” Mississippi State star Dominique Dillingham said on Saturday. “But I promise you it’ll be a lot better tomorrow when we win.”

It would be even sweeter to beat the Gamecocks to do it.

The Bulldogs lost twice to the Gamecocks this year, dropping a game in South Carolina in the regular season and then in the SEC Tournament title game.

“The first game we had against them at their place, it’s a knockdown, drag-out, came down to one play,” Schaefer said. “We talked about that with our kids. It came down to one play in that ballgame.”

This is the sixth time in NCAA Tournament history that teams from the same conference will play for the national championship. It’s the third time for the SEC, with Tennessee beating Auburn in 1989 and the Lady Vols topping Georgia in 1996.

While facing a familiar foe is helpful for the short turnaround, South Carolina coach Dawn Staley knows Mississippi State is a different team from the one the Gamecocks played a month ago.

“It does make it easier. … but for what Mississippi State has done over the past five games, you know, they’re much different than they were that sixth game in which we played them in the SEC Tournament championship,” Staley said. “The intangible part of it is really hard to get our focus in on it. They’re playing at an all-time high. Morgan William is playing some of the best basketball I’ve ever seen played in a player.”

William followed a career-best 41-point performance in the regional final by hitting the game-winning 15-footer against the Huskies.

“We feel like we won it all when we won that game last night, but we know we didn’t,” William said. “We still have unfinished business, and for us to be playing South Carolina, it’s kind of like, now we get another chance, like we got another chance at UConn, now we get another opportunity to play against South Carolina, but it’s on a bigger stage and it means more.”

Mississippi State is looking to be the third team in NCAA history to beat three No. 1 seeds. Tennessee did it in 1987 en route to its first title. Louisiana Tech accomplished the same feat a year later. The Bulldogs have already knocked off top-seeded Baylor and UConn to get to the final.

They’ll also face a South Carolina team playing without one of its best players. Center Alaina Coates injured her ankle in the SEC Tournament and hasn’t been with the team at the Stockton Regional or in Dallas for the Final Four.

Coates had nine points and 12 rebounds in the first meeting this season with Mississippi State and did not play in their rematch in the SEC Tournament. She averaged 12.9 points and a team-high 10.7 rebounds for the season.

“Our medical staff thought it was best if she didn’t travel,” Staley said. “She’s got a bright future in basketball at the next level and we don’t want to risk setting it back potentially with her coming here instead of rehabbing.”

WOMEN’S NCAA CHAMPIONSHIP
• Mississippi State vs. South Carolina
• Sunday, 5 p.m.
• TV: ESPN
• This is the third meeting this season between the Bulldogs and Gamecocks. South Carolina won 64-61 on Jan. 23, and 59-49 in the SEC Tournament final on March 5.
• Mississippi State has not beaten SEC rival South Carolina since 2010.