COLUMBUS, Ohio — Last year, Mississippi State followed up the biggest win in its program history with a subpar performance, a lack of energy.
That victory, of course, was the Bulldogs’ stunning overtime upset of UConn in the Final Four to snap the Huskies’ 111-game winning streak.
That response, unfortunately, came in the national championship and resulted in a 67-55 loss to conference-rival South Carolina.
But here the Bulldogs are again, less than a year later, on the same stage — with a somewhat different script and somewhat different actors.
“I think that's yet to be determined as far as how we respond,” Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said Saturday, one day after the No. 1 seed Bulldogs fought off No. 1 seed Louisville to win 73-63 in overtime.Schaefer is doing what he can to control the response when his team takes the floor Sunday against Notre Dame in what is probably the second biggest game in program history.
Most importantly, Schaefer is altering what the Bulldogs do in practice. It will be lighter than it was last year. There will be less drills and focus on technique, and more stretching and shooting because, “we still haven't really shot it well,” the coach said.
Those adjustments, Schaefer hopes, will allow the players more room to recover from an exciting, emotional victory.
Indeed, as thrilling as the Bulldogs’ win Friday was, there might be no victory as exciting and as emotional as Mississippi State’s upset of UConn last year. Especially for Morgan William, the player who sank the upset-delivering shot in Dallas.
It definitely feels different for her. Most obviously, she said, is that the media attention is way less. There were dozens of reporters asking her questions, wanting to know her every thought. On Saturday, there were, at best, a handful.
Another way it isn’t the same: when she and her teammates got to bed.
The Bulldogs played in the second national semifinal in 2017, and by the time they celebrated, talked to the media, traveled back to the hotel, tried to get food, met with throngs of fans gathered at the hotel, then got to their rooms, it was late. Like, really late. William said she went to bed around 3 a.m.
Blair Schaefer said she and her roommate, Victoria Vivians, didn’t fall asleep until 4 a.m., then they were up by 9 a.m. for breakfast and film, then practice and more meetings with fans. Saturday before the championship isn’t an off-day, Schaefer said.
“I feel like that was a lot for us to take in, but this year we know what it feels like so we’re mentally prepared for that — but I also think we went to bed a little bit earlier last night.”
The last glance Schaefer got of a clock this time showed 1:44 a.m. Still not great, but better.
“I feel like we’re not riding a high wave,” William said. “I feel like we’re just calm and composed right now.”
But when Sunday’s championship game is over, William and her teammates want to be riding a wave — a wave of celebration, a wave of relief and redemption.
In life and in sports, opportunities for redemption, or something close to it, don’t come often. While last year’s loss won’t be erased, the Bulldogs have a chance to do the next best thing: bring home the school’s first title this year.
That’s why, with the help of a favorable schedule, they’re spending Saturday doing things different, so when they take the floor Sunday, the energy is different, it’s unbeatable. The performance is different, it’s stellar. The result is different, it’s a championship.