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2017 Final Four: The National Championship Preview

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Mississippi State knocks off Goliath to advance to play for a national title against a familiar foe, South Carolina.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Women's Final Four-Mississippi State vs Connecticut Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Mississippi State pulled off the unthinkable and the unimaginable Friday night when they knocked off the greatest dynasty in major American sports - the UConn Huskies.

Coming into the game with the world doubting them, Vic Schaefer put together a brilliant game plan and installed confidence into his squad that was put to display right from the opening tip. The team never looked scared, never looked overwhelmed, and answered every moment of adversity throughout the 45 minutes of action in front of a huge crowd in the American Airlines Center.

In my UConn preview, I wrote that State needed a legendary performance and lots of help from everyone on the court:

In order for State to pull off the victory, I believe the Bulldogs will need a huge performance from Teaira McCowan, another impressive showing by Morgan William, and a scoring outburst from Victoria Vivians. The Bulldogs need a performance similar to Darryl Wilson’s in the 1996 Sweet Sixteen against Ray Allen and one-seeded UConn.

None of that happened.

Not one player scored 20 points. Teaira McCowan suffered with early foul trouble and finished with 10 points. Morgan William only had 11 points before her legendary shot. State had double-digit turnovers and gave up their first half lead. The Bulldogs did not have a perfect game by any stretch.

And yet, the Bulldogs still beat the team that no one else was able to do for one-hundred and eleven games.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Women's Final Four-Mississippi State vs Connecticut Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Up next? The South Carolina Gamecocks. The team that has beaten State twice this season, both in the Gamecocks’ home state. But, this time the game will be held in Dallas, Texas, coming with Mississippi State playing their best basketball of the season. Well, ever.

Game Info

  • National Championship Game: 2-seed Mississippi State (34-4) vs. 1-seed South Carolina (32-4)
  • Tip-off: 5:00 p.m. CT
  • ESPN
  • WatchESPN
  • American Airlines Center
  • Dallas, TX
  • Mississippi State Watch Party: Humphrey Coliseum

Preview

NCAA Womens Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-South Carolina vs Mississippi State
Morgan William and Mississippi State are looking to avenge their two earlier losses to the Gamecocks.
Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Mississippi State and South Carolina have already met up twice this season, with the Gamecocks coming out on top in both instances.

In their first meeting, Mississippi State entered Colonial Life Arena with a 20-0 record. The two teams battled back and forth, throwing punches and counters to one another until the game came down to the closing moments of the fourth quarter. State had an opportunity to win, but questionable officiating, a missed free-throw, and a missed shot at the end prevented the Bulldogs from continuing their unblemished record. State left the game coming away with the thought that they left many opportunities on the table, but that they can indeed play with the conference champs.

The second meeting came in the SEC Tournament Championship game. In Greenville, South Carolina, the Gamecocks again had the home crowd in their favor. The Bulldogs went up to the Palmetto State for the second time of the 2016-2017 campaign with a five-point lead going into the final quarter. What happened next sparked lineup changes once Mississippi State entered the NCAA Tournament.

State was held to four points, did not break 50, and watched the Gamecocks score 19 on their way to the SEC Tournament crown. The abysmal offensive performance led Vic Schaefer to rethink his game-plans and strategies, as he benched four starters in State’s first two games in The Dance. The move was to create an offensive spark for the team that has played so well defensively all season.

The moves worked. State skyrocketed their scoring average to over 92 points during their first four games of the tournament going into their meeting with UConn. With a new offensive flow, a more dynamic Morgan William, and a team playing with all the confidence in the world, the Bulldogs are hungry for another shot at their SEC rival.

Path to the National Championship

NCAA Womens Basketball: Women's Final Four-Mississippi State vs Connecticut Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The 2-seeded Bulldogs and the 1-seeded Gamecocks had quite different roads to the National Championship.

Per Jeff Sagarin’s Women Basketball ratings, Mississippi State had the toughest path to get to the biggest game in all of college hoops.

In their 5 tournament games, Mississippi State had to defeat four of the top twenty-two teams in basketball. State knocked off 126-ranked and 15th-seeded Troy in the First Round, but the challenge became much harder. The Bulldogs defeated 22nd-ranked and 7th-seed DePaul to get to the Sweet Sixteen, 6th-ranked and 3rd-seeded Washington - along with the best scorer the women’s game has ever seen in Kelsey Plum - to reach the program’s first ever Elite Eight appearance to take on Baylor. The Bears, ranked 2nd in the nation and the top-seed in the Oklahoma City region, were thought to be the one team capable of beating the mighty UConn Huskies. But, Morgan William’s legendary performance put an end to that.

State’s gift for making their first ever Final Four was top-ranked, top-seeded, and the winner of 111 straight, UConn. The game turned out to be one of the best to ever be played in the sport, coming down to the final shot of overtime. State has overcome every obstacle in their way.

South Carolina earned a one-seed in their region. The Gamecocks entered tournament play against 248-ranked UNC-Asheville. Their road increased in difficulty when they defeated 8-seeded and 18th-ranked Arizona State in the Second Round. Because of a Cinderella run, South Carolina met 12th-seeded and 72nd-ranked Quinnipiac in the Sweet Sixteen. In the Elite Eight, the Gamecocks faced 3rd-seeded and 9th-ranked Florida State to get back to the Final Four. Finally, the one-seed beat two-seed and 8th-ranked Stanford in the game prior to State’s classic against UConn.

Two different roads, but both are in the same spot: a win away from a National Championship.

Keys to the Game

NCAA Womens Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-South Carolina vs Mississippi State Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports
  • Get McCowan going
    Much like in my UConn preview, I believe getting Teaira McCown going early and often will help Mississippi State become victorious. The 6-7 center broke out and showed her true potential in the Sweet Sixteen, but foul trouble prevented her from making a big impact against UConn; however, a clutch and important lay-up in overtime proved to be critical. The sophomore is averaging 12.5 points and 7.5 rebounds against the Gamecocks this season, including a monster 15 point, 12 rebound performance in their last meeting. State needs to get their center going early and often Sunday evening.
  • Avoid scoring droughts
    During this amazing tournament run, Mississippi State has been able to avoid scoring droughts. The team has been clicking and shots have been falling, thanks to Schaefer’s adjustments and the team’s high confidence. But, against UConn, State had periods of time that shots were not falling. Granted, UConn plays elite-level defense, but State needs to avoid going too long without seeing the ball go through the hoop. The team must prevent another performance similar to their fourth quarter the last time these teams met.
  • Take care of the ball
    Morgan William has gained the nation’s attention with her 41 point Elite Eight performance and her remarkable game-winning shot against the Huskies, but the most valuable part to her game is her decision-making. The small guard runs and operates State’s offense and leads the team to points. She makes the decisions, decides where the ball goes, and controls the tempo. Considering she had 7 turnovers in the last match-up, expect the tournament’s star to respond in a big way. William, and the team as a whole, must take care of the basketball for the entire game.
  • Win the paint
    Similar to the match-up with UConn, Mississippi State has the advantage when it comes to both height and depth. State was able to get 10 players into action Friday night, allowing key players to get some rest throughout the game. South Carolina played 7 against Stanford, but only one player that saw action is listed at 6-5 or taller - A’ja Wilson. In fact, only one other player is listed at 6-2 or taller. The Gamecocks have played a guard-heavy rotation since the injury to Alaina Coates. Wilson is certainly a superstar and will make an impact, but the Bulldogs must take advantage of the battle in the paint.

Match-Ups to Watch

NCAA Womens Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-South Carolina vs Mississippi State Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports
  • Teaira McCowan (C) vs. A’ja Wilson (F)
    This is perhaps the most intriguing match-up of the game. The 6-7 center that can dominate in the paint versus the 6-5 forward that is up for the Wooden Award. McCowan, unfortuntely, dealt with foul-trouble early in Friday night’s game that led to her sitting for 17 of the 20 minutes in the first half and preventing any rhythm to be established. UConn played solid defense on her, but how much was that her not risking another foul and not being in the flow of the game? The center responded in overtime that gave the Bulldogs a 64-62 lead. State needs a big performance from her tonight. WIlson is averaging 17.4 points and 7.6 rebounds on the year. The Gamecocks forward is big time, but State must have a counter to her. In the two team’s last meeting, McCowan went for 15 and 7, while Wilson had 15 and 9.
  • Morgan William (G) vs. Bianca Cuevas-Moore (G) / Kaela Davis (G)
    William has turned into a legend with her performances this tournament, but she did not have the best game when she last went up against the Gamecocks. William did indeed score 14 points, but her 7 turnovers are far too much. During postseason play, the Bulldogs guard has only turned the ball over 6 times in the last 4 games. William needs to be herself in this game for the Bulldogs to have a chance. Kaela Davis (6-2) has the height advantage over William’s 5-5 height, but Cueavas-Moore is listed at 5-6.. This guard battle will go a long way in deciding tonight’s victor.
  • Victoria Vivians (G) vs. Allisha Gray (G)
    Victoria Vivians entered the tournament on the bench, despite being selected to the AP All-American Third-Team. Vivians has put up double-digit scoring in each of the Bulldogs’ five tournament games, including 19 in the monumental win over UConn, but it has taken her a lot of shots to get there. Vivians needs to have a big game to help lead the Maroon and White to a National Championship. Gray is averaging 13 points per game for the Gamecocks, while Vivians is averaging 16 points for the Bulldogs.

X-Factors

NCAA Womens Basketball: Women's Final Four-Mississippi State vs Connecticut Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
  • Chinwe Okorie (C)
    While Tearia McCowan has come on strong, Chinwe Okorie is playing very well, too. The 6-5 center contributed 7 points and 4 rebounds on Friday night, but her solid defense while McCowan was dealing with foul trouble was very impressive. Okorie adds valuable expereince off the bench for the Bulldogs, and she will be greatly needed to help contain Wilson in the paint. The Gamecocks only play two players listed 6-2 or taller, so Okorie having a solid game will be huge for the Bulldogs.
  • Blair Schaefer (G)
    Like in Friday’s preview, Blair Schaefer is listed as an X-factor for tonight’s game. The coach’s daugher has the ability to knock down threes and add a needed spark to the Bulldogs’ offense. While in the starting lineup earlier in the tournament, Schaefer’s daughter averaged 19.5 points in the two games. UConn contained her well, but Schaefer’s scoring will be a nice boost for the Bulldogs.

Final Thoughts

NCAA Womens Basketball: Women's Final Four-Mississippi State vs Connecticut Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Mississippi State is playing for a National Championship tonight. Let that sink in.

After their tough and competitive path to the final game, the Bulldogs finally have their ultimate goal in sight, and South Carolina is the team in the way. In the team’s third and final game of the season, so it’s fitting that it’s for all the marbles.

The Bulldogs left both games feeling like they left too much on the table, but that they can indeed play with and defeat this team. Mississippi State needs a big scoring performance from Victoria Vivians, another smart and efficient game from Morgan William, and for their McCowan and Okorie duo to dominate the Gamecocks’ undersized and thin front-court. Confidence and motivation should not be an issue, as the Bulldogs have been hungry for another opportuity against the team that knocked them off twice.

Get hyped for tonight’s game, thanks to HailStateProductions!

Hail State!