Credit Mississippi State for finally stopping UConn's record win streak of 111 games in Friday night's 65-64 overtime thriller in the women's Final Four in Dallas
Gino Auriemma's Huskies outplayed this time, but will no doubt be back with probably an even stronger lineup
By ARNIE LESHIN
Gino Auriemma knew things weren't going right at halftime.
"I told them we're lucky to only be down by eight," said the legendary University of Connecticut women's head coach, "because we are getting beaten by a better team tonight."
He thought the record winning streak would end sooner, but Mississippi State had all the right answers Friday night in stunning the college basketball world on 5-foot-5 junior point guard Morgan William's short jumper at the overtime buzzer to bring a magical 65-64 win for the 3rd seeded Bulldogs.
It's now not correct to say that it was 862 days ago that the University of Connecticut women's basketball program lost a game.
What is correct is that the rejuvenated Mississippi State team, still with reminders of last year's 60-point shellacking at the hands of these Huskies, avenged that embarrassment with this impressive classic triumph in game two of the Final Four at the American Airlines Arena in Dallas, Tex.
With a masterful job of coaching by Vic Schaefer, his Bulldogs certainly earned this. They led early behind the orchestration by William, who scored a career-high 41 points in the win over top-seeded Baylor, were confident with the lead at halftime, and even had many answers of their own when the Huskies surged back from a 16-point deficit to tie the score and take their first lead in the third quarter.
That said, the Starkville school went on to accomplish what no other team had done since 2014 when Stanford turned back visiting UConn in overtime in the second game of the season. Thus, finally falling was the Huskies' remarkable program that had won a record 111 straight games, the last four NCAA championships, and 11 national titles in all under Geno Auriemma.
On the negative side, this was the Huskies' sixth straight overtime defeat, first since that setback at Stanford. It was also their first loss in 28 tournament starts, last one coming in 2010 versus Notre Dame.
Said Schaefer: "We don't have to play them 100 times, just to beat them once is enough because they are a great program and we had to play our best to beat team. That 60-point shellacking lingered in our thoughts all year."
This game turned out to be a classic from start to finish before a capacity crowd. And what made it that was Schaefer's team responding every time the top-seeded Huskies (36-1) made a run, which wasn't many against the stubborn, smart Mississippi State defense. Except for a 10-0 run in the third quarter, UConn could never take charge as the Bulldogs countered each time.
Even Auriemma had praise for his friend Schaefer's team.
"They were just better than us," he said. "They had all the right answers, had the great play by their short point guard who played big, gave us trouble with their defense, and made the right plays. I told my players that things like this happen, but we must just go on from there. Yes, they were disappointed, the tears were expected, but it was a remarkable season I didn't expect and we had a fabulous run."
The late run of 13-2 by UConn as the third quarter rang down finally put his team back in play, tying the score at 42-42 on a put-back by 5-11 junior All-American Gabby Williams. A 3 by 6-3 All-America sophomore Katie Lou Samuelson brought its first lead at 45-42.
But Mississippi State (34-4) called a time out and went back to work. Back and forth the teams went in the fourth quarter, but the Huskies were guilty of missing layups they usually make, turning the ball over, and getting beaten off the boards by 6-7 sophomore Tiaira McCowan and 6-4 senior Brianna Richardson.
Meanwhile, UConn forced turnovers, but couldn't convert them. Williams had the game-high 21 points but also missed four of 11 free throws and committed five turnovers. She and 6-2 sophomore Napheesa Collier, the team's third All-America, brought down eight rebounds each, but the Bulldogs controlled the defensive boards and didn't allow the Huskies many second shots. They had a 37-31 edge in rebounding.
Plus, Williams and Collier had four personal fouls each midway through the final quarter of regulation.
That quarter brought eight lead changes and seven ties. It was tense with neither team inching ahead. In the fading seconds, 6-1 Mississippi State junior Victoria Vivens drove to the basket, but her shot was blocked by Williams.
Overtime. This, too, was tight, with only two buckets scored by each. Then came the hectic final 20 seconds. With the ball and a two-point lead, the Bulldogs were called for a flagrant foul 1, putting Samuelson on the line for two freebies, and with her team getting the ball. She converted both to knot the score, but when the lone senior, 5-8 Saniya Chong, lost the ball driving to the basket, it was now Mississippi State's turn to go for the win.
With no time outs left and 12 seconds showing, William took charge, dribbled to the right of the foul circle while being guarded by Chong, flipped up the jumper as the buzzer sounded. The celebration then began at midcourt.
Revenge was sweet. Since that regional record 98-38 annihilation in last year's Sweet 16, the Starkville campus had reminders all over, on the locker doors, in the classrooms, along with constant viewing of the game by the players.
"My players just listened to everything I told them," Schaefer said, "and we had to put together a big effort, which we did, to beat this great team."
And this on was on a bigger stage than last year's site and before a lot more people as the arena was sold out for the Final Four. And maybe for Monday night's final matching Southeast Conference rivals Mississippi State and South Carolina, which made up an 11-point halftime deficit to oust Stanford 65-56 in the opening game.
Samuelson added 15 points to her team's scoring and played all 45 minutes. Collier scored 11 and Chong 10 to go with five assists. For the Bulldogs, it was Vivien with the high of 19 points, William had 13 points and six assists, McCowan brought down eight rebounds, one more than Richardson.
Although Mississippi State shot only 37.3 percent from the field (UConn was 43.5), it was better from the foul line by making 10 of 13 while the Huskies put in only 17 of 25. Each team had 11 assists, but UConn had a surprising 17 turnovers to 14 for the Bulldogs.
Auriemma didn't mention it, but he returns six key players, four of them starters, as well as 6-6 Duke transfer Azura Stevens, who had 14 double-doubles her sophomore season with the Blue Devils, and the number one recruiting class led by Player of the Year, 6-1 Megan Wilson. He shouldn't have a depth problem next year, so opponents beware.
"We were leading a charmed life," he said, "but now it's time to look ahead, and we're not going anywhere."
Mississippi State can also look ahead, that is after Sunday's winner-take-all test against a South Carolina team that beat it twice during the regular season. It has four seniors, but plenty of talent back with four juniors, three sophomores and three freshmen to link with its recruiting class.
As for the streak shutting down, UConn is still unbeaten in championship games, losing only in the Final Four.
Can you top this? Well 111 wins in a row is awesome and should remain as difficult to surpass as Joe DiMaggio's hit streak, Cal Riken's consecutive games, Brett Farve's consecutive games played and touchdown passes, and Wayne Gretsky's hockey records.