When Mississippi State lost to Connecticut in the 2016 Sweet 16 by 60 points, MSU head coach Vic Schaefer said there were just two words to describe it.
“Embarrassing,” he said. “It was humbling and embarrassing.”
He was supposed to give a talk at the WBCA convention about defense the following week, something he wasn’t sure the organization still wanted him to do in the aftermath.
“I remember calling Danielle, the president of the WBCA going, ‘Danielle, it's coach Schaefer at Mississippi State. Are you sure you want me to give a presentation at the Final Four about defense? We did just give up 98,’” he said.
With the core group from 2016 intact, Mississippi State went 33-4 overall and 13-3 in the competitive SEC this season. Two of the team’s losses came against No. 1 seed and fellow Final Four team South Carolina, including one in the SEC tournament. The Bulldogs then had to leave an incredibly tough regular season conference only to enter an equally difficult tournament region.
“I believe the comments made when the bracket came out was we were in the 'spicy region,' and anyone who come out of that region would be battle-tested and ready,” Schaefer said.
After first and second round games at home, Mississippi State moved on to face Washington and all-time NCAA women’s basketball leading scorer and AP Player of the Year Kelsey Plum. A 75-64 victory put the Bulldogs in the Elite Eight for the first time in program history. Then came Baylor, a game that went to overtime before Mississippi State finally won the right to appear in Dallas.
“It took an extraordinary, obviously, effort to get out of that region,” Schaefer said. “But our kids found a way.”
UConn, on the other hand, had a slightly easier road through the tournament. The women’s basketball dynasty entered the postseason undefeated and ranked No. 1. The Huskies’ path rocketed them past Albany and Syracuse by more than 30 points each, before meeting number four seed UCLA. UCLA gave UConn a battle, shutting down Katie Lou Samuelson in the second half with only one point. However, UConn pulled away near the end of the third quarter to reach the Elite Eight.
The victory against the Oregon Ducks put head coach Geno Auriemma ahead of the late Pat Summitt for most NCAA tournament wins with 113.
With the departure of stars Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck, there were questions of how dominant UConn could be going into the 2016-17 season. UConn answered these and more by continuing its streak of 111 straight wins, ranging back to 2014.
“Players change and teams change,” Auriemma said. “But what happened this year was really remarkable in that the unknown was what everyone talked about in October. Then throughout the whole season, it became really evident that this was a really, really good team, made up of really good players.”
Friday night will be a game of two extremes: the storied Huskies’ program with 11 championships to its name against the Bulldogs in their first Final Four in program history.
“Even though the numbers or the names may change, the program itself just keeps rolling,” Schaefer said of UConn. “At the same time, we know we can’t really get caught up in the whole UConn thing. We’ve got to do what we do."