DALLAS — This Mississippi State team may look like the one that lost to UConn by 60 points in the Sweet 16 last year, but the 2016-17 squad is older, wiser and, ultimately, better. Now, it has a chance at redemption, this time in the Women's Final Four.
Unlike many teams exiting the tournament last year, including UConn, Mississippi State didn’t have to start from scratch, entering the 2016-2017 season with 11 returning players. It meant familiar faces for fans and the UConn team alike. Just three new players — two freshmen and one transfer — joined the group.
It’s a hallmark of the team. Both Vic Schaefer, in his fifth year as head coach, and the players call it an advantage to have existing chemistry with each other.
The team’s four seniors have played in three consecutive NCAA tournaments, an incredible accomplishment for a program that missed the NCAA tournament from 2003-2009 and again from 2010-2015.
“They’ll go down in history as the all-time winningest program to date, all-time winningest class to date in the history of the program, and four of the greatest players to ever play here,” Schaefer said. “They deserve a lot of credit, obviously, for where we are today, the turnaround of how we’ve accomplished this in such a short period of time.”
The two freshmen, Ameshya Williams and Iggy Allen, said that joining a tight-knit, experienced group was both encouraging and intimidating.
“The hardest part was trying to fit in and not make a mistake, just do everything the right way,” Williams said. “I think I improved a whole lot through it.”
Allen said she had to remember that it was ok to not yet be at their level. Watching more experienced players excel, even in practice, showed her the work needed to become a starter in the future.
“They’ve taught me patience, to just wait on my time,” she said. “I’m still young and maturing so coming onto a team that’s already mature and developed has been hard to adjust to, but it’s been a good decision to come here.”
Through it all, last year’s loss to UConn has been a driving force for the Mississippi State program, carrying it through the season and steamrolling into the tournament. That momentum culminated in the Bulldogs making the Elite Eight, and now the Final Four for the first time in program history.
Williams said she came into the program knowing the 98-38 loss still stung. The team she is a part of now, she said, is not the same team she watched
“The game from last year should make us more ready,” Williams said. “Last year, it seemed that they knew they were playing UConn and they were kind of scared. This year, I think the starters are ready to play them.”
Junior Morgan William was on the losing end last year, and she, too, recognizes the differences.
“I feel like we're in better condition to go out there and compete. Last year, I feel like we were a little timid to go out there, and it showed,” she said. “This year I feel a little different vibe in the locker room, practice, that we can go out there and compete with them.”
The Final Four matchup is scheduled to tip off at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN.