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Jack Freifelder | | April 3, 2017

South Carolina clamps down defensively, cruises in National Championship game

  South Carolina's defensive effort against Mississippi St. proved to be the difference in Sunday's title game.

DALLAS — From the opening tip, there was an edge to South Carolina’s play. It was tough. It was gritty. It was hard-nosed. It was Southeastern Conference basketball at its finest.

And on a night when two teams from the SEC met in the national title game vying for their respective school's first basketball championship, the Gamecocks stood tall with a 67-55 defeat of the Mississippi State Bulldogs.

  South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley celebrates with the championship trophy after Sunday's win.
“From an offensive standpoint, we needed to attack the paint,” head coach Dawn Staley told reporters in a Sunday press conference. “Yes, Mississippi State is a very good defensive team. They’re also a team that fouls a lot. We wanted to make sure that we put ‘em back on their heels.

“With any team — one that’s good defensively or not — attacking the paint is a hard guard,” she added. “Our players stuck to the game plan, and executed things to a T. [But we’re] a really good defensive team. We hang our hat on that. And to hold Mississippi State to 55 points, probably 20 points under their average in the tournament, goes to show our commitment to that side of the basketball.”

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Staley saw South Carolina earn an advantage on the backboards and at the free-throw line early while the team built a 10-point halftime edge (36-26), a lead that would bend but not break as the Bulldogs tried to fight back in the second half.

  Points in the paint Second-chance points Rebounds FTM-FTA (%) FGM-FGA (%)
South Carolina 42 13 40 17-22 (77.3) 25-55 (45.5)
Mississippi State 20 6 27 15-18 (83.3) 19-55 (34.5)

Vic Schaefer, head coach of the Mississippi State Bulldogs, said that South Carolina was just the better team in Sunday’s title game.

“I want to congratulate South Carolina, I thought they played really well today,” Schaefer said. “We got outrebounded and outscored in the paint. They were really aggressive. We had some foul trouble early and we tried to weather that a bit. Today wasn’t our best day.

“We came through a really tough regional, so we didn’t get here by accident,” he added. “Today doesn’t define us. It doesn’t define them as young women, as student-athletes, etc. We had one heck of a season.”

  South Carolina Gamecocks forward A'ja Wilson (22) was front and center during the celebration on Sunday.
South Carolina was led offensively on Sunday by a pair of double-doubles from junior guard Allisha Gray (18 points, 10 rebounds) and junior forward A’ja Wilson (23 points, 10 rebounds). Beyond being named to the all-tournament team, Gray and Wilson were the only two players on the Gamecocks roster to tally double figures in the scoring department in each of the team’s six NCAA Tournament games.

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Staley said that setting the tone on offense and defense was an important part of gaining the upper hand against Mississippi State, especially given that the two teams had already played twice this season.

South Carolina’s junior guard Kaela Davis said the unity that compelled this team to play together is something that the team has “worked on” all season long.

“We love each other through thick and thin — no matter what,” Davis said as she and her teammates celebrated on the floor of the American Airlines Center after the final buzzer. “We just bonded off the court, and luckily it found its way on to the court."

As far as the matchup with Mississippi State was concerned, Davis said the key was sticking to the game plan and staying aggressive.

“[Mississippi State’s] biggest thing is rebounding,” Davis told reporters. “We knew that if we came in, got stops, and were aggressive in rebounding the ball that we’d really like our chances.

“It’s hard to put into one sentence [what Coach Dawn] does,” Davis added. “What she does for the community, the school and of course the team is everything. For us and the team it means a ton to be able to do this for her.”

Women's Basketball: South Carolina captures 1st National Championship
The Bulldogs were looking to complete a run to their first National Championship as well, after making the school’s first appearance in both the Elite Eight and the Final Four. Guard Victoria Vivians finished with 12 points in the loss, while fellow backcourt mate Dominique Dillingham had 11 points of her own. But it was all for naught.

In the waning minutes of the game Schaefer said he tried to find a bit of a teaching moment for his squad.

“I told ‘em: ’Hey, we’re probably not going to win the game, but we’re going to win the last minute,” Schaefer told reporters. “We talked about that in the huddle when there was 40-something seconds on the clock. We’re in the kid business. We’re constantly coaching and teaching young people. 

“At that moment it’s not about X’s and O’s,” Schaefer said. “It’s about trying to coach and teach them how to handle adverse situations. You tell ‘em, ‘Hey, not our day. Make sure you pat South Carolina on the back. But don’t minimize this moment. How you feel, remember it. Wrap your arms around it. Use it as fuel.’”

  South Carolina's Bianca Cuevas-Moore (1) handled Mississippi State's Morgan William in the title game.
South Carolina was ready for the their third meeting of the year with Mississippi State, and junior point guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore made sure that she had an impact from the start. The Bronx, NY-bred guard drew the assignment of guarding Mississippi State’s Morgan William, a task she was more than prepared to handle.

Despite William’s heroics in the two games prior to the title bout (a 41-point outburst against Baylor and a buzzer-beating jumper to down UConn), Cuevas-Moore managed to hold her counterpart to just eight points on 2-of-6 shooting. 

In fact, William spent most of the second half on the bench as the offense sputtered and struggled to keep up with the Gamecocks. And whenever the Bulldogs put together a run to get the deficit back to one or two buckets, South Carolina managed to get a timely hoop that kept Mississippi State at bay.

“I did what I do on the regular,” Cuevas-Moore told after Sunday’s win. “We just played [our game] and wanted to make it hard for them. I just wanted to show people that I can defend, that I can go out there to defend and play for 40 minutes.”

That was Cuevas-Moore’s modus operandi from the opening tip as she regularly picked up her assignment at three-quarter court. The constant attention and hounding kept William from ever getting into a groove. As a result, the Mississippi State offense never really got going.

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  South Carolina Gamecocks head coach Dawn Staley helped her school win its first national title on Sunday.
Staley, who played point guard in her college and WNBA days, had high praise for her junior floor general, despite a night where she only scratched the surface of the stat sheet (five points, two assists and one rebound in 29 minutes of action).

“The maturity of Bianca is quite incredible,” Staley said during a press conference following Sunday’s title game. “I’m so proud of Bianca for accepting that role. She does like to score the ball and throw a little sauce out there when she has the ball in her hands, but she committed to the game by picking up Morgan William. She knew the game plan was to make it difficult for Morgan.

“She was great in practice and great in shootaround,” Staley added. “Her answer was ‘I got it. I know the game plan.’ I knew deep down that Bianca was going to come through for us and I'm super proud of her.”

Cuevas-Moore said the reality of winning the national title didn’t take hold until the last minute of the game, adding that the opportunity to bring the first national title to South Carolina “means a lot” to the school and the women’s basketball program.

“We were all on the bench standing up,” Cuevas-Moore said. “We were so excited and we couldn’t believe it. We had a lot of doubters throughout the year. We proved a lot of people wrong, and it’s just huge for the program.”

Only time will tell if Staley will have her bunch back to make a run through the tournament again next year. Until then, the hardware has found a new home in Columbia, South Carolina.

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