In the final moments – the final 26.6 seconds to be exact – Vic Schaefer had his team in the huddle for what seemed like it might be the final time. Mississippi State was in overtime against Connecticut. The right to play for the National Championship on Sunday was on the line, and the game would be decided in less than 30 seconds. After MSU’s head coach gave them the play call, he looked up from his white board and told them one thing, over and over.
“You were built for this,” Schaefer practically yelled, looking straight at Breanna Richardson.
“You were built for this,” he yelled again, staring directly at Morgan William.
Schaefer looked each of his players in the eyes and reminded them that they were supposed to be in this position, and they were supposed to win.
Exactly 26.6 seconds and one more short timeout later, with the game tied at 64, William’s shot, coming down from its high arc, dropped into the basket as the buzzer went off. The Bulldogs won, 66-64. Schaefer was right, and so was his team. They were built for that moment, built for those last 26.6 seconds, and built for that final basket.
When William hit the jumper, she wasn’t just making a shot. She was making history. She was sending her team to the National Championship Game for the first time in school history. And that’s not just the women’s basketball program. Never before has any MSU team in any sport been in a game where a single win would result in a National Title, and only once has an MSU team advanced to the championship round.
And beyond making history, they were earning redemption. For just over 12 months, MSU has been fueled by the embarrassment of losing by nearly 60 points in last year’s Sweet Sixteen against UConn. They talked about it before their first game at the beginning of the season, and they talked about it all week leading up to their most recent game. While their focus always remained on the team in front of them, their inspiration came from the loss behind them and the eventual rematch ahead of them.
“They’ve kind of been on a little bit of a mission,” Schaefer said. “They have tremendous heart. They also have a little pride.”
“It was personal,” Victoria Vivians added.
I’d be lying if I said I expected it, but I also wouldn’t be telling you the truth if I said that the Mississippi State players didn’t expect it. I mean, UConn was riding a 111-game winning streak and were the prohibitive favorite to win every game from now until the apocalypse. Why would anyone expect MSU to pull the upset? Why would the Bulldogs think they could?
But for reasons that were clearly well-founded, they did think they could. It showed all week. I mentioned it to an administrator the morning of the game. I don’t know what’s going to happen, I told him, but the players think they’re going to win this game. I had seen it all week in practice, in the locker room and around the team hotel. They were calm. They were confident the whole time.
William was asked after the game when she thought they could pull off the upset. Her answer was short: “in film.” They saw on tape that they were going to win before they even entered the arena.
“What an absolutely gutsy performance that no one in the country thought could happen,” Schaefer said. “But that’s OK. We knew it could happen.”
Everyone around the Final Four proceedings in Dallas, everyone in the world of women’s college basketball, spoke only of UConn and their talent and their winning streak and their coaching and their history and on and on and on and, yeah. No one wanted to give State a chance. No one thought they could do it. No one, of course, except for them.
“We believed in our locker room it could be done,” Schaefer confirmed.
And naturally, it was William who made the final shot. The smallest player on the court, her game-winning shot had such a high arc not because it was last-second, but just because the angle was hard with her 5’3” stature.
“That’s one of the toughest shots to make, from that distance, under that kind of pressure,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said.
William is the perfect example of what her team has been all year. They’re the underdogs. The Bulldogs. They won with scrappy defense, high effort and strong resolve. They won by working the boards, owning the paint and hitting shots when it mattered. Shot, singular, most importantly.
MSU out-rebounded one of the biggest teams in the country, racking up 18 second-chance points as a result, and out-scoring the Huskies in the paint. And it wasn’t just a last-second shot. MSU was the aggressor in control for nearly the entire game, including overtime. UConn only led the game for a grand total of two minutes and fifty-seven seconds, held a full 10 percentage points below their season average field goal percentage. In fact, in the middle of the first quarter, the Huskies were actually honored on the video board for leading the country in field goal percentage.
But hey, the other team getting the attention – what else is new for MSU?
Mississippi State has been making history all year long. On the biggest stage in basketball, they showed the world why. They were built for this.