COLUMBUS, Ohio — The grace period lasted exactly 10 minutes Friday night in the form of a slow first quarter, and it really was a kind gesture for both Louisville and Mississippi State to let the sellout crowd at Nationwide Arena settle in before they blew the lid off the place.
After that, these two No. 1 seeds, two titans of defense playing each other for the first time, seemed intent on keeping the 19,564 in attendance out of their seats as much as possible. Both the Cardinals and Bulldogs went about dispelling the myth that defense is their only strength. Louisville showed off its electrifying duo of Asia Durr and Myisha Hines-Allen, who combined for 29 points. Mississippi State was happy to put senior guard Victoria Vivians, who scored 25 points, and its not-so-secret weapon, 6-foot-7 center Teaira McCowan, who added 21 points and a Final Four-record 25 rebounds, on display.
With all that offensive power, it seemed only right that Mississippi State needed overtime to win, 73-63, thanks to five points from Vivians in the extra period before she fouled out and a three-point play from McCowan to ice the win.
The Bulldogs, who upset Connecticut in the Final Four last year with a buzzer-beater in overtime, seem averse to playing boring national semifinal games. They advanced to their second consecutive title game, in which they will face No. 1 seed Notre Dame, and reinforced the notion that they belong in the national conversation year after year.
“Anything we’ve done this year validates last year,” Coach Vic Schaefer said.
“What we’ve shown the country is that, when you get the support of the right people and there’s investment in a program, this is what can happen. You can be in Final Fours. You can play for national championships. You can have 10,000 a night at your games. You can have a passionate fan base that makes the Final Four so special for everybody. . . . I think, for us, this is the new norm.”
Mississippi State ripped the win away from Louisville with the biggest play of Roshunda Johnson’s career.
With the Bulldogs trailing by three points, Johnson let fly a clean three-pointer just a beat before Arica Carter stuck a hand in her face to tie the score at 59 with seven seconds to play. Hines-Allen then charged down to the other end of the court but missed a layup as time ran out.
The Bulldogs had given up the lead with one minute to play in regulation but snatched momentum back from the Cardinals.
Vivians scored the first five points of the extra session for Mississippi State (37-1) and stifled Louisville with less than a minute remaining. Jazmine Jones made one final field goal to pull the Cardinals within one with 50 seconds to play, but the Bulldogs scored the final nine points, including seven from the free throw line.
“It took the pressure off because we know we’re an overtime team,” Vivians said of Johnson’s shot. “If it’s overtime. We say it’s our time. It’s our game. I feel like everybody just locked in, locked down, and they knew what it was time to do, and we came out with the win.”
A flustered Louisville was just 1 for 10 from the field with three rebounds in the final period, while Mississippi State had 14 points and 10 rebounds, seven of which came from McCowan.
McCowan made the difference for the Bulldogs from the start. The Mississippi State center set an NCAA record with 92 rebounds in the tournament, and her presence in the post made an impact even in that slow first quarter.
“This one — what do you say about Tea?” Schaefer said. “Twenty-five and 21? She’s done it all year against the best teams in the country, the best coaches in the country. She did it all night on the biggest stage you can do it on. Plays all 40 minutes.”
McCowan interrupted at that point to remind her coach she had played 45.
Morgan William, the player who hit the game-winning shot to upset Connecticut last year, added a crucial 10 points, as did Jordan Danberry off the bench.
Louisville (36-3) closed a landmark season. It won the ACC regular season and conference tournament for the first time and made its third Final Four appearance in Coach Jeff Walz’s tenure.
Hines-Allen (11 points, four rebounds, four steals) ended her career as the second Cardinals player to record more than 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. Durr, a first-team all-American, added 18 points, and Jones had 15 points and nine rebounds.
But Mississippi State had unfinished business to attend to at this Final Four, and neither Louisville’s vaunted defense — or its offensive fire — could stop the Bulldogs.
More college basketball: