One play doesn’t cost you a game, but one play can win you a game.
So spoke University of Connecticut women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma about midnight Saturday after one stunning play won an unforgettable game for Mississippi State in the semifinal of the NCAA Women’s Tournament. Morgan William’s 15-foot pull-up jumper from the right wing swished through the net as the final buzzer sounded, giving the Bulldogs a 66-64 victory in overtime and putting them in the championship game for the first time. They will play South Carolina in an all-SEC final. The Gamecocks ousted Stanford in the first semifinal Friday, 62-53.
That one play also snapped UConn’s record 111-game winning streak and denied the Huskies a chance to win their fifth consecutive national title, their 12th overall, and post their seventh undefeated season. They finished 36-1. Mississippi State improved to 34-4.
This was sports drama at its finest. UConn, the undisputed gold standard in women’s college basketball, a brand synonymous with excellence. UConn, which last lost on Nov. 17, 2014, at Stanford, in overtime and which last lost an NCAA Tournament game on April 1, 2012, to Notre Dame, in overtime. UConn, which produces All-Americas and players of the year as if it’s no big deal and replaces them without missing a beat. UConn, coached by a Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer who is still racking up coach of the year honors. UConn, which scored 100 points five times this season, held opponents to fewer than 50 points 12 times and fewer than 40 once. UConn, which won its seven post-season games this year by these margins: 48, 22, 56, 61, 30, 15 and 38.
Mississippi State, which lost to UConn last year in the Sweet 16, 98-38, and returned 11 players from that team determined not to repeat history. Mississippi State, which advanced to the Elite Eight and the Final Four for the first time in program history. Mississippi State, which needed a blocked shot and 41 points from Morgan William to beat Baylor, 94-85 in overtime, in the regional final.
Mississippi State dictated the tempo of this game from the start. Playing tough defense, the Bulldogs disrupted UConn’s offensive rhythm and made it difficult for the Huskies to reverse the court. At one point UConn trailed by 16, its greatest deficit during its winning streak. The Bulldogs took an eight-point lead into the locker room at the half. His team was so outplayed that Auriemma said it was a miracle the margin was only eight.
UConn, being UConn, rallied and led by three in the fourth quarter. Mississippi State tied the score and had a chance to win in regulation, but UConn’s Gabby Williams blocked Morgan William’s shot, forcing overtime.
UConn had its chances, but confronted by the Bulldogs formidable defense, the Huskies missed shots and committed turnovers. Auriemma attributed those failings to his young team’s lack of maturity and inexperience on the biggest stage in the college game. Case in point, after a video review upheld a flagrant foul against Mississippi, UConn’s Katie Lou Samuelson made two free throws and tied the score, 64-64. UConn retained possession with 26 seconds left, more than enough time to work the ball for a good shot. But Saniya Chong drove the lane, collided with William and lost the ball with 14 seconds left.
“Here’s a kid trying to win the game. Saniya was trying to make a great play. There was a collision, and nothing happened,” Auriemma said after the game.
At the other end, William, Mississippi State’s 5-foot-5 sparkplug, launched the shot that became an instant classic. As the Bulldogs stormed the court, Auriemma smiled and strode the sideline to congratulate and embrace Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer. Clearly, Auriemma appreciated the moment, even though his team had just lost. Later, he explained, saying how many times that had happened the other way, how many times the Huskies had sent teams to the locker room in tears. This time, they felt the pain of losing a big game on a last-second shot.
To their credit, Auriemma and his players handled defeat with a champion’s class.
“They deserved to win. They beat us,” Auriemma said. “The kid made a great play. I said if they are going to make a shot, it’s got to be a pull-up jumper, not a stand-still.”
And so it was.
UConn fans need not worry about their team. The Huskies will be back next season, older, wiser, more mature. They will know how to handle the pressure that comes with being in the Final Four. And they won’t have to bear the weight of a record 111-game winning streak. One play took care of that.