The Cinderella story for the Mississippi State Bulldogs ended short of national championship title as the South Carolina Gamecocks defeated them 67-55.
Mississippi State began the game matching South Carolina’s energy, going on a 7-3 run early to try to establish themselves but a USC 10-4 run to close the first quarter created an uphill battle for the remainder of the game. Dominique Dillingham said the team wasn’t matching South Carolina’s intensity.
“We were up 7-3 at the beginning,” Dillingham said. “They made a run and then we weren’t executing offensively.”
Mississippi State had trouble establishing an offensive presence, costing them to be behind 10 points entering the second half. Besides not scoring until two minutes into the game, Mississippi State had trouble defending South Carolina’s flowing offense. In the second quarter alone, Mississippi State was 4-11 from the floor. Dillingham agreed that the team’s usual grace on offense was absent early after the 7-3 start in the game.
“There’s no way to really put it,” Dillingham said. “We weren’t putting the ball in the basket and we weren’t getting stops which isn’t a good recipe.”
South Carolina’s Forward A’ja Wilson dominated in the paint with eleven points and two rebounds in the first half although rebounding wasn’t a priority for the Gamecocks as they shot 46% from the floor and scored 18 points in the second quarter. Allisha Gray and Wilson each had 11 points as South Carolina led 36-26 in the first half. The Bulldogs were in foul trouble again too early. The Bulldogs picked up 11 fouls, which led to South Carolina to shoot 15 free throws, completing 12 of them.
Breana Richardson said it was a tough time guarding such a dominant force like Wilson for the Gamecocks while keeping the Bulldogs intact.
“A’ja is a great player,” Richardson said. “I feel like she came out and was determined to get the win for her team. She played with the energy her team needed.”
Wilson was present when the Bulldogs began to make their runs late in the game. The Bulldogs had a short burst of life throughout the second half, cutting the lead to six from being down fourteen, but it wasn’t enough to combat the consistency from South Carolina. After Richardson completed a lay-up, the Bulldogs were within six of the Gamecocks’ 58-52 lead, but Wilson wasn’t going to let the Bulldogs close in so easily.
She scored six points in two minutes to give the Gamecocks the 12 point lead to win the national title. Wilson said she knew what was on the line and had to continue to pressure the Bulldogs’ withering defense.
“I knew that I needed to make an impact on the game,” Wilson said. “Whether it's a block, score or anything.”
The Gamecocks found most of their success in the paint against the Bulldogs. On defense, Wilson and Gray each secured ten rebounds, out-rebounding Mississippi State 40-27. 42 of the 67 points for the Gamecocks took place in the paint. South Carolina’s Wilson wasn’t letting McCowan or Okorie establish themselves on either sides of the ball, holding both of the Bulldog bigs to just nine points and 14 rebounds combined. Coach Schaefer said the Gamecocks hindered the Bulldogs in their hard work on both sides of the floor, but especially in the paint, costing them the title.
“We don’t usually win games when we don’t win the points in the paint battle.” Schaefer said.
The MVP of the Final Four, Wilson tied with teammate Gray with ten rebounds and had the team-best 23 points. Wilson said her success against Mississippi State was staying in her own mindset and letting the game come to her.
“I think we took our time,” Wilson said. “We read their plays and denying our ways to get the ball. We had to find our ways to attack the ball and get it in the paint.”
Coach Schaefer said that the Bulldogs had a tough time flowing against South Carolina’s sufficiency and determination.
“South Carolina has a habit of making things so hard for you to execute,” Coach Schaefer said. “There’s just hard to handle.”
In the third straight win against Mississippi State, South Carolina held Mississippi State to shooting 34% overall. In the highlight of the offensive troubles for the Bulldogs, Morgan William had 8 points, her lowest of the game against ranked opponents and in the NCAA tournament. Coach Schaefer explained his reasoning of putting in Jazzmun Holmes instead of William, who has been the go-to option for the Bulldogs lately.
“If you look at the stats, my two guards (Vivians and William) didn’t have a very good day,” Coach Schaefer said. “Morgan, she had four assists, one turnover, was 2-6. I try to hold people accountable.”
William said she was fine with sitting out the fourth quarter and Holmes had the energy Coach Schaefer was looking for.
“She did good,” William said. “She went 3-5 from the field, she was putting ball pressure and scoring points, so I can’t be mad. It’s what was best for the team.”
William finished her NCAA tournament performance with 120 points. Victoria Vivians finished the game 4-16 from the field scoring 12 points, the team’s highest against the Gamecocks.
In the loss, the Gamecocks won their first national title and also swept Mississippi State in three games this season. The Bulldogs are looking forward to next season as Coach Schaefer will prepare to send off the historic seniors and welcome the incoming class. Schaefer has the 19th ranked recruiting class in the nation coming in for Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs finish the season 34-5, the best record in program history. Coach Schaefer said he’s proud of how far the team has came and looks forward to getting his returning players ready for the next season.
“It shouldn’t matter who’s coming in, I have a heck of a group coming back,” Coach Schaefer said. “It’s their time to go work and get better. Don’t minimize this moment. How you feel, remember it.”
Ketera Chapel, Chinwe Okorie, Dominique Dillingham and Breana Richardson finish their careers at Mississippi State as the winningest class in program history with 111 wins. The class is 111-34 (.766) since the 2013-14 season. Dillingham and Richardson both reached the 1,000 point club in their college careers. Schaefer said he can’t thank his seniors enough for believing in the vision he set out while recruiting and looks to sending his seniors off on a great run to close their careers as a Bulldog.
“It was real emotional, you know,” Schaefer said. “They’ve had the ride of a lifetime. Really for four years they’ve had a great career.”
Coach Schaefer said the team’s success was by no means a mistake and look forward to another success season coming up.
“Again, it’s been a heck of a ride, it’s been fun,” Coach Schaefer said. “We’ll be back.”
*This story has been update.