All-SEC matchup: Bulldogs, Gamecocks meet for national title
Shortly after Mississippi State recorded its biggest win in school history on Friday night, women's head basketball coach Vic Schaefer and his staff was back to work.
Schaefer and his coaches stayed up until 3:21 a.m. on Saturday morning reviewing film on South Carolina, a team that has handed MSU two of its four losses this season. Schaefer said on Saturday that he’d rather play just about anyone than a Southeastern Conference team in the title game because of the familiarity.
The Gamecocks (32-4) certainly have had the Bulldogs’ number to this point, but neither of the teams have played in a game of this magnitude.
The film that the team watched was MSU’s SEC Championship loss in Greenville, S.C. nearly a month ago. It was a game that snowballed late after the Bulldogs controlled the third quarter. South Carolina gave up just four points to State in the final quarter and went from trailing to winning the game by double digits.
“When you only score four points, you’re not going to beat anybody in March,” Schaefer said. “Offensively, we didn’t make shots. We didn’t execute very well. They did.”
MSU’s junior point guard Morgan William takes ownership for most of it.
Before William leapt into NCAA Tournament lore with her Elite Eight and Final Four performances, she struggled against the Gamecocks. William finished that game with 14 points but turned the basketball over seven times.
Over the next five games in the tournament, William has turned it over seven times total. It was a performance that she learned from instead of sulking and the Bulldogs are the better for it. She said that today will tell the tale of her lessons learned.
“The second game I put it on myself because I didn’t have a good game with seven turnovers," William said. "I didn’t put my team in a good position to win. This game, I’m not going to have seven turnovers.”
The first meeting between the two teams was even as frustrating.
State went back and forth in the game with then No. 5 South Carolina, but A’ja Wilson and Alaina Coates were too much scoring 35 points together and pulling down 21 rebounds in a 64-61 classic.
Coates has been out the entire tournament with an ankle injury, but Wilson and her team aren’t missing a beat. The two-time SEC Player of the Year averages 17.7 points and 7.8 rebounds per game this season. She’s 6-5, long and athletic creating major problems for her opponents.
“In my opinion, she’s the best player in the country,” Schaefer said of Wilson. “She’s physical, she’s a constant worker, (and) just a competitor. She wants the big shot. For us, we understand what’s coming down the pike. We’ve had two doses this year. We understand and respect South Carolina so much.”
What the Gamecocks lost in size with Coates gone, they’ve gotten out of their guards. Kaela Davis, who had a great game against the Bulldogs in the SEC Tournament, averages 16.6 points per game in the NCAA Tournament. Allisha Gray has averaged another 16.2.
It will be a game that Dominique Dillingham and MSU’s veteran guards will have to play very well to win it all. Like her coach, Dillingham hasn’t forgotten the last outing. None of the players were happy with their performance, especially offensively.
Since that time, the Bulldogs have been a different team on that side of the court.
“Our fourth quarter execution is not what we wanted at all,” Dillingham said of the SEC Championship loss. “We took two weeks off and worked on offense and definitely learned that we have to be better offensively.”
The conference championship has been decided with South Carolina earning the right to become the best in the SEC. MSU has a rare opportunity to cancel that out with a national title Sunday at 5 p.m. on ESPN.
With the whole world now watching, the Bulldogs (34-4) can make their mark and earn the right to be the best of the best.
“We talked about, when we started this back in September, there were seven championships on our schedule," Schaefer said. "We won four of them. We lost out on two, the regular season SEC Championship and the conference tournament championship. Now we’ve got a chance in the national championship.”