Dallas, TX — This was it. The National Championship.
In a battle of the SEC, the Mississippi State Bulldogs took on the South Carolina Gamecocks. Both programs were looking for their first national title.
Mississippi State looked to carry over the momentum from their stunning overtime victory against UConn in the semifinal. The Bulldogs came into today’s game with a 0-2 record against the Gamecocks this season.
South Carolina looked to make it a perfect 3-0 against Mississippi State. Though they knew this game had a lot more at stake than the others.
So who would be crowned the national champion? The time had come to find out. And while the Bulldogs came out with a lot of fight initially, they were suffocated by the stifling defense of South Carolina, and they Gamecocks fought their way to the National Title, 67-55.
Aggressive is the best way to describe this game. You knew from the start that the players were going to leave it all on the court. And why wouldn’t they? It’s the last game and it’s for all the marbles.
Mississippi State got off to an early lead, but South Carolina quickly evened things out at seven a-piece. The Bulldogs regained their lead with a jumper by Dillingham. A free throw by Cuevas-Moore closed the gap to one, making it 9-8.
Minutes later, things were all tied up again at 12 thanks to a layup by Gray. Holmes responded with a layup of her own to momentarily pull ahead. Then it was Gray with the spin move and a jumper to tie it at 14 with 2:10 remaining in the first period.
Missed shots and turnovers were the stories for the next minute and a half. Then came a call that made Bulldog fans erupt in disapproval. Dillingham got called for the foul on Cliney, who sank both the free throws that followed.
It looked like South Carolina would start the second period up 16-14. However, the first ended with another call that Mississippi State fans did not like. This time, Johnson got called for the foul on Gray’s shot taken at the buzzer. She made both free throws and, suddenly, the Gamecocks led by four.
The second period was scoreless for nearly two minutes. The first points came on a three-point play after Gray was fouled on a jumper. William then stormed down the court and went straight to the basket, scoring on a layup.
Wilson followed this up with four consecutive points to extend the Gamecock lead 25-16.
William again came to the rescue for the Bulldogs after a foul by Cuevas-Moore. She sank two free throws, then moments later blocked a shot. Yes, you read that right. William, listed at 5’5”, blocked a shot.
Unfortunately, her efforts did not slow down the South Carolina offense. Wilson knocked down a shot followed by Davis followed by Harris, taking the Gamecock lead to double digits for the first time. South Carolina was up 31-18.
Mississippi State started an attempt at a comeback. Williams sank another two free throws. Then she got a little help from her teammates as Dillingham got a steal that led to an easy jumper by Okorie, making it 31-22 and a single-digit deficit.
The teams traded off jumpers to take the score to 35-26. Then Wilson was fouled by Richardson, which led to two free throws. She missed the first, but made the second, creating a difference of 10.
After a missed buzzer-beater, the halftime score remained 36-26, South Carolina.
Mississippi State scored the first points of the half in the form of free throws by Vivians.
Though South Carolina scored the next six points to take the score to 42-28.
Then with six minutes left in the third, Dillingham hit a three-pointer, making it 42-31.
Harris responded with a three-point play of her own. Though hers came after a foul that allowed her to make a free throw after sinking a jumper.
The Bulldogs were falling behind, which was not okay with them. They proceeded to chip away at the gap by scoring the next seven points. With four minutes in the third, they were down by just seven.
Then came the big break Mississippi State needed: a turnover out of an inbounds in their end by Cliney. Chapel took advantage and made a mid-range jumper. In the blink of an eye, the Bulldogs are only down 45-40.
Gray woke her team back up with a layup. Then after an exchange of free throws from multiple players, all of which Mississippi State made and one of which South Carolina made, the gap became four.
South Carolina, though, quickly got their lead back to end the third up 52-44.
After a few scoreless minutes, Richardson sank two free throws. Then Holmes hit a shot to make it 54-50, pulling the Bulldogs right back in it. A turnover by South Carolina gave Mississippi State the opportunity to make it a one-score game, but Richardson got her shot blocked by Wilson.
The Gamecocks then went on a 13-5 run to close the game and cruised to the National Championship — the first time in program history.
It’s certainly an incredible accomplishment. One that has been a goal of South Carolina Head Coach Dawn Staley since she can remember.
“I've been coaching for 17 years now. I played college basketball, what, 25 to 28 years ago. It took that long… If something is a goal of yours to accomplish, you don't give up on it. I never gave up on winning a national championship, no matter how hard it was, no matter what it looked like.”
The Gamecock players were happy they could get it done for that reason.
Wilson said, “I really can't even put into words the feeling of how much it meant to win this game for Coach. She's put in so much time, so much sweat, just voiced her voice into us. It really means something special to kind of bring this back home, especially for such a great person like Coach Staley.”
They got the sweep against Mississippi State for the season, and the senior class will go out with 111 wins — the most in school history.
It’s been an emotional 48 hours for the Bulldogs. They may not be taking home the title, but they will always be remembered, as the team who took down the UConn Huskies.
Mississippi State Head Coach Vic Schaefer said, “[South Carolina was] the better team today. It takes nothing away from our 34-5 season. As my athletic director reminded us, there were 347 teams today watching this game. We were one of the two playing. Only one of them walked off that floor the winner.”
So South Carolina will be taking the trophy back to Columbia, where fans are treated like a part of the team.
Coach Staley said, “Our town is a sports town. They love their sports. Certainly, the fans have painted a picture of what a national champion looks like. I can't thank them enough. I can't wait to get home to share this moment with them.”