On Friday night, deep in the heart of Texas, the UConn women’s basketball team finally experienced something the Han, Habsburgs and Romans know all too well.
All dynasties fall.
The slayers were Mississippi State, an athletic, tough-minded team from the Southeastern Conference that did something few UConn opponents have ever done over the last couple of years: They took it to the four-time defending champs right from the opening tip.
Hours later, at 11:10 p.m. Central Time, Mississippi State junior guard Morgan William hit a 14-foot pull-up jumper as time expired for a 66–64 overtime victory. If you looked at UConn coach Geno Auriemma’s face at that exact moment, he had a broad smile. It was as if he knew the end of the streak was coming. William’s face registered pure joy.
“When it went in, it was almost like, ‘Of course. Of course, it’s going to go in,’” Auriemma said. “She’s (William) had an amazing run so far. Look, nobody’s won more than we’ve won. I understand losing, believe it or not. We haven’t lost in a while, but I understand it. I know how to appreciate when other people win.”
After the shot went down, Mississippi State’s players flooded the Americans Airlines Center court as if they had won a national title. William was grabbed in a bear hug by senior guard Dominique Dillingham and then tackled by the rest of her team. Mississippi State alum and Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott went nuts from his seat in the second row and made his way onto the court. Jay-Z’s “On To The Next One” played over the speakers above. It was sheer ecstasy if you were a Bulldog.
“When I made the shot, I was in shock,” said William, who scored 41 points against Baylor in the Regional Final. “I’m still in shock.”
Generously listed at 5’5″ but with heart double that size, William played 44 minutes and finished with 13 points, including the biggest shot in school history (at least as of now). Her basket ended UConn’s streak of 111 consecutive victories as well as this preposterous stat: UConn’s last loss prior to Friday night was 866 days ago, on Nov. 17, 2014, when Stanford pulled out an 88–86 win in overtime at Maples Pavilion.
In the overtime period with the game tied at 60, Victoria Vivans, Mississippi State’s best player and leading scorer with 19 points, fouled out with 3:57 left. But Mississippi State did not fold. Schaefer screamed, “Down,” a play designed for William to get the ball inside to sophomore center Teaira McCowan, and William delivered the ball deep in the post. The 6-foot-7 McCowan turned toward the basket and hit an easy layup to give the Bulldogs a 64–62 lead with 1:13 left in overtime.
On UConn’s next possession, UConn sophomore forward Gabby Williams made a sloppy pass inside that was deflected by McCowan and resulted in a turnover. But Mississippi State failed to put the game away on a missed three by guard Blair Schaefer, the daughter of the coach. That left one last UConn possession after Auriemma called a time out with 26.6 seconds left.
But during the time out, the officials looked at replay of the errant pass by Williams and saw that UConn sophomore guard/forward Katie Lou Samuelson had been fouled hard to the ground by Dillingham, who had elbowed Samuelson to the throat. The officials called a flagrant-1 foul on the play, and not surprisingly, both the Mississippi State crowd and Schaefer were apocalyptic. Samuelson hit both free throws to tie the score at 64–64 and UConn had the ball for one last possession to win. But UConn senior guard Saniya Chong rushed the final possession and drove to the basket with 12.3 left. She tangled up with William and no foul was called. It was now Mississippi State’s ball, with one last chance to make history.
“The kid (William) made a great play,” Auriemma said. “I thought Saniya did a pretty good job defending her. We said if they’re going to make a shot, it’s got to be a pull-up jump shot. Can’t be a standstill, can’t be a layup. That’s one of the toughest shots to make from that distance under that kind of pressure. I always tell my team, one play doesn’t cost you a game. It almost never does. One play doesn’t cost you a game. But a lot of times, you know, one play will win you a game. That’s exactly what she did.”
UConn took its first lead of the game midway through the third quarter at 40–39 on a put back by sophomore forward Napheesa Collier. The final period started tied at 48—the first time UConn had been tied heading into the final period during its long winning streak—and if you looked into the crowd, you saw Breanna Stewart, the four-time national champion for UConn and current Seattle Storm star, biting her hands from nerves and with good reason.
After trading baskets in the final period, Vivans made a layup off a gorgeous spin move late in the shot clock that put Mississippi State up 56–52 with 3:52 left in regulation. But UConn tied the game at 60 when Collier made 1 of 2 free throws with 28 seconds left. Schaefer called a timeout with 20.8 seconds remaining in regulation and William had a chance to win the game without the extra session, but Williams blocked her shot. It was then onto overtime tied at 60, the first extra period at the women’s Final Four since 2012.
Mississippi State players had looked forward to the possibility of this game all season, and Vivans revealed on Thursday that the team’s strength and conditioning coordinator had placed the number 60 on the window in the team’s training facility as a reminder of UConn’s 60-point beat down of Mississippi State in last year’s tournament. “We see it every day,” Vivans said. “It didn’t leave our heads at all.”
If UConn had a weakness this year it was in the half court offense, given it was undersized in the post. Immediately after the tip, Mississippi State established post dominance with McCowan hitting a pair of layups in the first three minutes. The Bulldogs owned the glass in the first half (a 21 to 11 advantage) and an 8–0 run to end the opening quarter had UConn looking like Glass Joe in the old Nintendo Punch Out game.
Earlier in the second quarter Mississippi State extended its lead to 29–13, the largest deficit UConn had faced at any point of this season. (The previous high had been seven against UCLA.) It was a total reversal of last year’s regional semifinal game where UConn routed Mississippi State, 98–38, in Bridgeport, Conn. In that game, UConn led 32–4 after the first quarter.
“We kind of lived a charmed life for a long time, for a whole five months,” Auriemma said. “I told them at halftime it’s a miracle we’re only down eight [36–28]. We knew it was going to be only a matter of five, six minutes before we got it back. But they were just better. You know what? When stuff like this happens, it kind of makes me shake my head and go, ‘You know how many times this could have happened and it didn’t happen?’ The fact that it never happened, that doesn’t mean I went home thinking, ‘It’s never going to happen.’ I knew this was coming at some point. I’m just shocked that it took this long to get here. We’re playing way above our years and way above our experience level. Tonight it caught up to us.”
Here’s the thing for Mississippi State: They still have one more mountain to climb. On Sunday night they face conference rival South Carolina for the third time this season. The winner will be the first new women’s basketball champion since 2012. In the Mississippi State locker room after the game, Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts, who played college basketball at Southeastern Louisiana University in the early 1980s, addressed the team, praising how they had elevated the sport.
“We’ve been beaten twice by South Carolina,” Schaefer said. “Our kids, we know what’s coming down the pike. It won’t take much to get their attention. That’s our job, my job as the coach. They know now the prize is in front of them, it’s attainable. We’ve got one heck of a team to get ready for, a tremendous staff. They’re really, really good. They’ve obviously changed their system a little bit throughout the course of the season. But it’s down to two of us, Southeastern Conference teams playing for the national championship. Hey, that’s pretty special.”
If the title game is anything like we saw on Friday night, bring it on. There’s going to be a new national champion in women’s basketball and that’s an exciting prospect. Sure, UConn will back next year with all of its key players returning and a new army of prospects, but for this year in Dallas, the King is dead. Long live the old king. Get ready for a new one.