Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

NCAAW Final Four: Mississippi State Still Needs to Beat SEC Foe to Become Cinderella

By ROB KNOX (@knoxrob1)

 A season that started for Connecticut dodging a bullet at Florida State concluded by taking one to the heart against Mississippi State.

 This is why sports are powerful and a reminder of why the games are played.

 The most unexpected team ended the game’s most improbable winning streak in a breathtakingly stunning way.

 When the women’s basketball season started, the list of teams that many expected to beat UConn in March was short: South Carolina, Notre Dame, Baylor, and Maryland. If somebody gave you a fifth guess, chances are Mississippi State would not have been mentioned.

 Yet, there were the Bulldogs literally dog-piling and celebrating the most memorable victory in their program history.

Mississippi State diminutive junior guard Morgan William delivered a buzzer-beating shot for the ages while authoring a perfect ending to a wonderful night of women’s basketball.

 William’s shot will be replayed for eternity.

 Her game-winning pull-up basket as time expired over the outstretched arm of Gabby Williams simultaneously lifted the Bulldogs to an exhilarating, 66-64, overtime victory in one of the greatest upsets in women’s basketball history and terminated UConn’s NCAA-record 111-game winning streak.

 Moments like that make March magical.

 UConn rolled into Dallas as an overwhelming favorite to win its fifth consecutive national title.

Despite its 33 victories, confidence and talented players, many believed Mississippi State would be just another speed bump along UConn’s smooth road to victory.

 The Bulldogs had other ideas in stunning the women’s basketball universe.

 Mississippi State proved that anything is possible with hard-work, hustle, tenacity, belief and focus.

 The Bulldogs advanced to Sunday’s national championship game against Southeastern Conference (SEC) foe South Carolina, a 62-53 winner over Stanford in the first semifinal.

 The Bulldogs have an opportunity to become the first women’s program to beat three No. 1 seeds in the same tournament. South Carolina handed Mississippi State two of its four losses this season.

Whoever wins Sunday will become the 15th women’s basketball program in history to win a NCAA championship. Furthermore, South Carolina or Mississippi State will become the second SEC team to win a NCAA title.

 In what was on paper a David-vs-Goliath matchup was anything but as Mississippi State didn’t crack under the weight of UConn’s aura and accomplishments. A sling shot wasn’t needed to extinguish the UConn giant.

 After all, David never possessed the ankle-breaking skills or clutch shot-making ability like William anyway.

 To be fair, Mississippi State didn’t win a trip to the Final Four in a raffle.

 The Bulldogs had 33 victories and were coming off of an overtime win against Baylor as well as an impressive win over Kelsey Plum and Washington.

 Mississippi State didn’t save women’s basketball with its victory.

 The game had been at a high level for a number of years, but that view had been clouded because of UConn’s brilliance and dominance, which included a 98-38 beatdown of the Bulldogs in last season’s Sweet 16 in Bridgeport.

 Following that mismatch, UConn was placed on the defensive for the ferocity of its victory.

 The Huskies were forced to defend its reputation, program culture of excellence and competing at the highest level. There were some idiots saying there was no competition, the Huskies were too good for the sport, and it was boring to watch.

 The Huskies excellence was good for the sport as it forced everybody to raise their game to another level.

 Again, sports provides the greatest reminder that anything is possible on any given day.

 If this was a best-of-seven, then the Huskies probably win the series, but in the one-game at a time world of the NCAA Tournament, all it takes is one bad night. And this is not like the baseball or softball regionals where it’s a double-elimination format.

 Like many, I am stunned UConn lost to Mississippi State. Funny thing is Mississippi State didn’t need any divine intervention or miracle plays to beat UConn. The Bulldogs played the way they have always played during their enchanted season.

 The only comparison to a night like this was the epic UNLV-Duke men’s basketball battles.

 In the 1990 national title game, UNLV beat Duke, 103-73, at the time the largest margin of victory in title game history.

One year later the same two squads met in the Final Four with UNLV looking to finish a perfect season.

The Runnin’ Rebels were denied as Duke won 79-77, a win that catapulted the Blue Devils to consecutive national titles.

Watching the game play out Friday night, it’s not surprising the Bulldogs won.
 This was not a fluke.

 Mississippi State deserved to win as it outplayed UConn for most of the evening.

The Bulldogs were better on offense, excellent on defense and stronger on boards. Mississippi State magnificently controlled the tempo and never allowed the Huskies to get out in transition.

The Bulldogs attacked from the start, confronted UConn’s challenge during the second half and eventually slayed the Huskies while never backing down.

 Mississippi State refused to lose. When the Huskies seemingly took command late and forged a three-point lead with under two minutes remaining, the Bulldogs responded like champions.

Aside from strategy and shot making, Mississippi State won this game before it arrived to the arena.
The Bulldogs were mentally prepared and believed that they were going to win.

 Last season, Mississippi State was defeated in the pre-game layup line. It was 32-4 after the first quarter and 61-13 at halftime.

 Mississippi State led the entire first half and even constructed a 16-point second quarter lead on the Huskies.

UConn never found a groove because of Mississippi State’s suffocating defense.
 Even when UConn was losing to Notre Dame a few years ago, it was never this uncomfortable on offense.

 Mississippi State junior guard Victoria Vivians delivered the first message.

 Her pull-up 3-pointer in the opening minutes was a statement to the rest of the women’s basketball world. More importantly, once Vivians shot swished through the net, it signaled to UConn that this was a different Mississippi State team than the one that endured a humiliating 60-point loss to the Huskies last year in the regional semifinals.

 Vivians was special again before fouling out a minute into overtime. Her smooth game is fun to watch as she combines textbook fundamentals with mesmerizing flair.

 She halted a 12-0 UConn second quarter charge with five quick points. Late in the game, Vivians sank a 3-pointer in front of her bench to give the Bulldogs a 60-59 lead. That came after Mississippi State fell behind, 59-56.

UConn didn’t go down easily, not that anybody expected it. The proud Huskies found a way to put themselves in position to win the game. Mississippi State had a lot to do with UConn not playing its best game. The Bulldogs made life miserable for the Huskies.

 What UConn achieved was hard.

The Huskies made winning look ridiculously easy and the strong competition seem inferior.

Reaching 10 consecutive Final Fours and winning four straight national titles requires some luck along the way as well as amazingly great health. We may never see a 111-game winning streak again in history so that needs to be celebrated.

 UConn’s last two losses were two-point overtime setbacks. Think about that for a second.

 The Huskies handled the loss with class, poise, grace, and tremendous sportsmanship.

The players were available to the media afterwards, spoke candidly, and gave props to Mississippi State. The players took its cue from head coach Geno Auriemma, who smiled when William’s shot went through the net. Auriemma was tremendous in postgame interviews.

 One question was answered as we learned who can beat UConn in March.

 The next big question is will Mississippi State have anything remaining to complete its improbable journey to the summit.

 No matter what happens Sunday, Mississippi State showed that anything is possible no matter the opponent. The Bulldogs provided the signature moment of the tournament.

So while you salute and admire the Bulldogs, make sure you do the same for the Huskies.

The power of sports.