- As South Carolina and Mississippi State meet for the third time this season in a championship game no one predicted, expect the Bulldogs' hot streak to continue with a title victory.
DALLAS — South Carolina coach Dawn Staley does not run away from success. Asked if she has envisioned what it would be like to win her first national championship on Sunday night, Staley said she has absolutely thought about it. “You have to envision it, you have to see it, and you have to claim it,” she said.
Her program is 40 minutes away from claiming its first title, but standing in South Carolina’s way is an unexpected but familiar foe, conference rival Mississippi State. In one of the great games in women’s basketball tournament history, Mississippi State topped UConn 66–64 Friday night on junior guard Morgan William’s 14-foot pull-up jumper as time expired in overtime. Staley watched the game with her coaching staff from press row at American Airlines Center and like the rest of us, she was amazed by what transpired in front of her.
“Although we watch a lot of basketball and watch it from a strategic standpoint, I was a fan at that point,” Staley said. “I didn’t want the game to end.”
When South Carolina and Mississippi State meet at 6:00 p.m. ET on Sunday in front of a sold-out crowd in Dallas, it will be the first time teams from the same conference will face each other in a women’s basketball championship game since UConn and Louisville met in 2013. (The last time SEC teams played for a title was in 1996 when Tennessee defeated Georgia.) Though South Carolina won the two previous meetings between the schools this season, both games were decided in the final quarter. On March 5 at the SEC tournament title game in Greenville S.C., the Gamecocks outscored the Bulldogs 19–4 in the final 10 minutes for a 59–49 victory. South Carolina won a Jan. 23 matchup 64–61 in Columbia.
Star Gamecocks junior forward A’ja Wilson spoke for many on Saturday morning when asked how strange it was that UConn was not playing on the final day of the women’s college basketball season. “I didn’t think I’d ever see the day they were not part of the national championship,” Wilson said of the Huskies, who have won the last four national titles and six of the past eight. “It’s kind of surreal. Going into this game, I’m sure everyone had UConn going to the final game in their bracket.”
But here we are. Predicting the winner of this game is tough; scouting it is not. Neither team is going to change at this point in the season.
Mississippi State will key its offense off William, who must limit her turnovers, and look to get baskets on the wing from leading scorer and junior guard Victoria Vivans. The Bulldogs will also attempt to establish an early post scoring presence behind 6’7” sophomore center Teaira McCowan, who had 10 points and eight rebounds against UConn, and 6’5” senior center Chinwe Okorie, who had seven points in 20 minutes in the semifinal.
Mississippi State has long been one of the best defensive teams in the country under coach Vic Schaefer, who helped Texas A&M win a title in 2011 as an assistant to Gary Blair. The Bulldogs are 106–25 under Schaefer when they win the turnover battle. Keep a close eye on that stat on Sunday night.
“They are going to be who they are—they are going to pressure the ball, they will disrupt, they will get the ball inside, and they have a point guard that manages the game extremely well,” Staley said. “We know all of those tangible things. It will be making sure we can control the intangibles. At this stage, we are who we are. Then you start trying to figure out what is our edge? What is your edge in this setting?”
South Carolina’s edge is in the post: Wilson is one of the best players in the country and has averaged 20.5 points and 9.o rebounds in the two games against Mississippi State this season. Stanford sent three players at Wilson at times during the semifinal—they beat her up pretty good—but Wilson was able to impact her team’s 62–53 victory in other ways, including one of the great rebounding efforts in Final Four history. She finished with 19 boards, the second most ever in a national semifinal game behind LSU’s Sylvia Fowles, who had 20 against Tennessee in 2008.
The season-ending injury to Wilson’s frontcourt mate, 6’5” senior center Alaina Coates, prompted the South Carolina coaching staff to play a guard-oriented lineup during the tournament. That has opened driving lanes for the Gamecocks’ uber-athletic guards. 6’0” junior guard Allisha Gray has averaged 16.2 points, 8.0 rebounds and shot 59% from the field during the tournament and also played quality defense against bigger foes. Junior guard Kaela Davis has also stepped up her game in the absence of Coates. Davis, the daughter of former NBA pro Antonio Davis, is averaging 16.6 points during the tournament.
“They attack you with so much aggression,” Schaefer said. “They play the way we like to play. They're playing that lineup right now that's really fast, aggressive. They go off the bounce. They play around A'ja, who you just can't get a butt on her. She's so good. In my opinion, she's the best player in the country. I've had to deal with her now for three years. I ought to know.”
The engine that makes Mississippi State go is William, the slayer of Baylor (41 points) and UConn. She said Saturday that she must do a better job of not turning the ball over against South Carolina after having seven turnovers in the SEC title game, the most she had in any game this season.
“Morgan William is going to make shots, she's going to make plays,” Staley said. “It is how she's making those plays. If we can decrease the amount of times that those plays are easy plays, I think it works in our favor. But if she's in a groove and she's playing as she's played over the past five games, it's going to be a long night for us.”
Schaefer insisted after the UConn win that his team has been very good about bouncing back from results, win or loss. He said he and his staff walked out of a film room session at 3:21 a.m. Saturday, and he did not get to bed prior to doing a 5:30 a.m. Good Morning America spot.
“The thing is, we're playing a team, they're so familiar to us and we're so familiar to them,” Schaefer said. “We're going into round three with South Carolina. We've had two knockdown, dragouts with them.”
The final act of this SEC trilogy will be the same kind of theater if recent history serves as a guide. Though Schaefer is 0–8 against Staley since he arrived in Starkville in 2011, the last couple of games have been tight, and the eye test says the Bulldogs are a touch better at the moment. Call it a hunch. but I’m rolling with the maroon and white giant slayers for one more win in Dallas.
Prediction: Mississippi State 64, South Carolina 61