Dallas, TX -- This is it- the grand finale to a season like none before it in NCAA women’s college basketball history.
But this season isn’t ending the way that most anticipated it would.
Mississippi State head coach Vic Schaefer would love for you to blame that on his team.
The Bulldogs took down No.1 UConn in thrilling fashion—an overtime buzzer beater by junior guard Morgan William—to nab their first championship berth in school history. Now, the Bulldogs turn their sites to fellow SEC foe and developing rival: South Carolina.
The Gamecocks won the first two meetings, beginning with a January conference showdown and seemingly ending in the SEC Tournament final. Sunday, these two teams will meet for the third time on a stage much larger and with much more to gain for the dub.
“The first game we had with them at their place, (was) a knockdwon, 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.”
Hail State is the ultimate underdog and has been for the past week if not year. Seriously, who would have ever dreamt that Friday night’s fairytale would become a reality?
But on the flipside, South Carolina has a lot to prove, too.
Dawn Staley’s Gamecocks are entering their first ever NCAA championship game after falling short multiple times. When Staley was hired in 2008, she was tasked with the job of turning the program around entirely.
In many ways, Colonial Life Arena is the house that Staley built.
But what about American Airlines Center?
To stay in this game, the Bulldogs have to knock junior forward A’ja Wilson off her game. Friday’s matchup with Stanford marked Wilson’s fourth double-double in the NCAA postseason, and she posted 19 boards en route. Wilson must be stopped on two fronts: scoring and second chances.
“If she doesn’t take it, she’s going to clean it up,” Schaefer said of Wilson. “That’s the thing we tried to impress upon with our kids. They’re going to get the rebound and get the put-back.”
Offensively, guard Victoria Vivians finished with 19 points against UConn, and she isn’t afraid to take a contested shot. Same with Morgan William. If both women can play the way with the voracity and the heart they both displayed on Friday, South Carolina will need more than just a game plan to win.
Here’s the trouble: guarding William. Staley said in Saturday’s press conference that she’s tasked junior guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore with that.
“We talked a little bit about it (and) Bianca knows what she has to do,” Staley said. “She has to really stay engaged and make it difficult. Morgan William is going to make shots, she’s going to make plays.
“It’s how she’s making those plays.”
On the flipside, Allisha Gray’s consistent and inspirational play should get the Gamecock offense running. Gray tallied 18 points against Stanford, followed by Wilson with 13. And if Wilson can continue to run the board while staying out of foul trouble, it will be a matter of Mississippi State matching South Carolina offensively.
This game, quite simply, is one for the ages. Both coaches have turned bottom feeder programs into national contenders in a few years, and both of these teams are in the national championship for the first time ever. The SEC familiarity is both a dangerous weapon and a lethal weakness that either team could capitalize on.
But in the end, that might just be what makes this game: the pure emotion.
Sunday could be a game of revenge for Mississippi State. But Sunday could also be a statement for South Carolina.
Maybe that’s the beauty of it: not a single, sane soul can say with complete confidence who is going to walk away the 2017 NCAA national champions.