DALLAS — It’s been a matchup more than a year in the making.
Maybe some didn’t see it that way given the shellacking that UConn gave Mississippi State in last year’s Sweet Sixteen — a 98-38 defeat — but Bulldogs head coach Vic Schaefer knew he wanted a chance to flip the script on the Huskies.
He didn’t know how long it would take or where it would come, but he knew his team would be ready if and when they got their opportunity.
That chance finally came on Friday in Dallas as Mississippi State squared off with UConn in the second national semifinal of the 2017 NCAA tournament, a game the upstart Bulldogs would win in overtime, 66-64, on a last-second buzzer-beater from point guard Morgan William.
“These kids have tremendous heart,” Schaefer told reporters after Friday's win over UConn. “They also have a little pride. We had our pride stepped on last year by another great team. We got our tail handed to us. Because of that … they’ve been on a little bit of a mission.
"Morgan had 41 against Baylor, but none bigger than the shot she hit tonight," he added. "You have to want to be in that moment. That’s why [we] won the game tonight. Make no mistake we beat a heck of a basketball team."
After all, beating a team that has won four consecutive national championships doesn’t happen every day. And that’s without any mention of the 111-game winning streak the Bulldogs busted up in the process.
“What an unbelievable, gutsy performance that no one in the country … thought could happen," Schaefer said. "And that’s okay. But we knew it could happen. We beat the greatest team, with the greatest streak in the history of sports. We're very proud of that."
William — who finished with 13 points and six assists in the victory, none bigger than the game's final bucket — said part of the motivation for her team came from the lack of respect they felt despite the school's first Final Four appearance.
"Coach called the timeout and he said: 'You're about to win the game,'" William said in the postgame press conference. "'We want the ball in your hands.' When I made the shot, I was in shock.
"I feel like we earned respect tonight," William added. "You know, people didn't believe in us. But it didn't faze us. We just had to go out there and play. I feel like [we] showed we're better than what everybody thinks."
This was by no means a game that UConn was going to give to the Bulldogs though, certainly not with everything that the Huskies had on the line.
Nonetheless, a fast start allowed Mississippi State to jump out to a double-digit lead in the second quarter. The Huskies began to make their move before the end of the half, and by the middle stages of the third quarter the two teams were in lockstep as they continued to trade baskets.
"We know the game is full of streaks," Schaefer said. "It was good we had a streak that got us up that big. That's hard to do against a great team. But we knew they were going to make a run, so you have to try to minimize that run. But again, our kids have so much pride. They found a way to get it done."
William, a 5-foot-5 junior from Birmingham, Alabama, actually had a chance to win the game in regulation as well, but her last-second layup was blocked by UConn's Gabby Williams (21 points, eight rebounds, four blocks) to set up the extra session.
"[The game-winning play] wasn't originally for me," William said. "Time was just ticking. I knew [at the] end of regulation, I went for a layup and they blocked it. She probably thought I'm going to do it again. I got the space, I jumped up and I made the shot.
"We had to redeem ourselves from last year, of course," she added. "We just went out there and fought."
Schaefer credited his team's maturity and poise for helping turn the tables against UConn, but he said the team's competitive spirit stood tall on a night where they needed it most.
“The moment last year was such a nightmare, so it’s in the back of your mind," Schaefer said. "But did you see our fanbase out there tonight? It was special. Those people love our kids and they weren’t going to let them lose.
"This was about two basketball teams," he said. "We didn’t have to play them the best out of seven. We just had to beat them one time. It helps to have a veteran team (four seniors, four juniors), but these kids were incredible. They always find a way and in that moment they were ready."
Three other Bulldogs joined William in double figures to beat back the Huskies (Victoria Vivians, 19; Breanna Richardson, 12; Teaira McCowan, 10). Katie Lou Samuelson had 15 for the Huskies in the loss.
UConn head coach Geno Auriemma told reporters after the game that losing at the Final Four is "the worst feeling imaginable."
"The excitement in Mississippi State’s locker room; we’ve been there," Auriemma said. "Today, they deserved to win. They beat us. We had our chances, but they took us away from the things we wanted to do.
“I always tell my team that one play doesn’t cost you a game,” Auriemma added. “But a lot of times one play will win you a game. That’s exactly what [Morgan] did.”
Mississippi State will take on South Carolina in Sunday’s national championship game, but the coaching staff and players will likely want to savor this one a bit longer. The Gamecocks edged out Stanford in Friday’s first semifinal in Dallas (62-53) and they now await their SEC foe in the title bout.Schaefer said that a win over top-seeded UConn was certainly an achievement to be proud of, but was keen on reminding his team that it was important to stay grounded heading into the National Championship game.
“We talked about one more game in the locker room,” Schaefer said. “There’s one more game but we’re playing a team that is so familiar to us. We finally get away from our league, but then here we go Round 3 with South Carolina. Dawn has done a tremendous job and they’re a great team. But it won’t be hard for me to get my team’s attention.
"The bottom line is they're great kids," he said. "They're committed. They want to win. They pay a price every day. That's the piece that if you're on the outside looking in, you just don't know that about our kids. That's what makes 'em the warriors that they are. It allows them to be successful. I've got the greatest job in the world. I get to wake up every morning and coach women's basketball with some great kids and with an unbelievable staff. What a blessing. So, hey, I'm not trading 'em for anything."
With a championship just one win away, Coach Schaefer and company will have to rally the troops one last time.