DALLAS — South Carolina’s mastery of Mississippi State in women’s basketball continued Sunday night, with this latest installment delivering the Gamecocks their first national championship with a 67-55 victory at American Airlines Center.
Junior forward A’ja Wilson’s 23 points led three players in double figures for No. 1 seed South Carolina (33-4), which also clamped down defensively in its first appearance in an NCAA tournament final. The Gamecocks limited their Southeastern Conference rival to 35 percent shooting in beating the second-seeded Bulldogs (34-5) for an 11th consecutive time and for the third time this season.
Wilson, named the Final Four’s most outstanding player, scored six straight points during an 8-0 run over the final minutes of the fourth quarter in front of an announced sellout crowd of 19,229. Her last basket in that stretch produced a 66-52 lead with 1:39 to play, all but securing South Carolina’s 11th win in a row to conclude the season.
“It means that I can check off one of the things that had been a void in my career,” said South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley, who went to three Final Fours in a row as a player at Virginia from 1990 to 1992 but never reached a championship game. “When I couldn’t get it done in college, I thought that was it.”
Staley also became the second African American coach to win a women’s basketball national championship, joining Purdue’s Carolyn Peck, thanks to a game plan that allowed no Mississippi State player to score more than 12 points.
The Bulldogs’ offensive woes came one game after they shocked Connecticut in the national semifinals. The Huskies had won an NCAA-record 111 games in a row before Friday night’s stunning result.
Morgan William, who hit the game-winning shot against Connecticut, was benched for the entire fourth quarter Sunday night after she struggled against the South Carolina defense and was held to eight points and four assists.
Mississippi State pulled to within 54-50 with 6:50 to play on two free throws by senior forward Breanna Richardson and a jumper from reserve sophomore guard Jazzmun Holmes. South Carolina kept the Bulldogs at bay, though, by scoring the next two baskets, with Wilson (9-for-15 shooting, 10 rebounds) hitting a jumper and junior guard Allisha Gray (18 points, 10 rebounds) banking in a fast-break layup off a pass from junior point guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore.
“I really can’t even put into words the feeling of how much it meant to kind of just win this for coach,” Wilson said. “She’s put in so much time, so much sweat, and just her voice and prepping for times like this.”
After its comfortable first-half advantage shrunk to two possessions, South Carolina had closed the third quarter with consecutive field goals to remain in front 52-44. The first basket came courtesy of Wilson’s shot from close range, and junior guard Kaela Davis beat the third-quarter buzzer with a midrange jumper that swished through as time expired.
The lead had expanded to 45-31 in favor of the Gamecocks with 5:39 left in the third quarter when freshman guard Tyasha Harris converted a three-point play. Mississippi State, with its fans rising to their feet hoping for a run, scored the next five points in a row to climb within 45-36 on senior guard Dominique Dillingham’s pull-up jumper with 4:22 to play.
The rally continued when William stole the inbounds pass on South Carolina’s next possession and scored an uncontested layup. Then the Bulldogs forced another turnover, and the deficit was down to 45-40 with 3:34 remaining in the quarter when senior forward Ketara Chapel sank a jumper with one foot on the three-point line.
Earlier, South Carolina claimed its largest lead of the first half following six straight points on field goals by three players, the last of which was Harris’s driving layup. But the Bulldogs answered with a pair of William free throws and senior center Chinwe Okorie’s jumper that rattled around the rim and through to trim the deficit to 31-22.
Staley called a timeout soon after, and the teams traded baskets until Wilson made 1 of 2 free throws with 10 seconds remaining in the second quarter to give the Gamecocks a 36-26 lead at halftime.
A 7-2 burst had allowed the Gamecocks to seize a 25-16 lead with 6:49 to go in the second quarter. Wilson scored two of those points from the foul line, and on Mississippi State’s ensuing possession, William missed the rim entirely attempting a jumper. That errant shot prompted Mississippi State Coach Vic Schaefer to use his first timeout to try to settle his players.
The Bulldogs faced their third No. 1 seed in this NCAA tournament and had traversed a treacherous path to reach the first Final Four in program history. In the region final in Oklahoma City, they outlasted No. 1 seed Baylor, 94-85, in overtime behind a career-high 41 points from William.
Then came the showdown with Connecticut, the No. 1 overall seed and four-time defending champion. Mississippi State’s 66-64 win in overtime unfolded thanks to William sinking a jumper at the buzzer to end the Huskies’ aspirations for a 12th national championship. It was Connecticut’s first loss since Nov. 17, 2014.
“It’s a long, hard grind of a year,” Schaefer said. “We got in so late Friday night [after beating Connecticut]. We’ve been trying to almost play catch-up since then. I thought we had a couple kids today that just didn’t quite have the energy level that we needed. When you combine that with [South Carolina’s] energy level, I think that made for a bad recipe.”