During the last timeout, it was as if history itself was waiting to see what would happen if the universe of women’s college basketball was truly about to be turned upside down.
This was Friday night at the 2017 Final Four. The score was 64-64 with 12 seconds left in one of the most extraordinary overtimes in recent NCAA tournament memory. A flagrant foul after a replay review had given Connecticut — the trembling giant with a 111-game winning streak — two free throws for a tie, plus the ball. Were the gods of the game smiling yet again on the mighty Huskies?
The game was suddenly there to be saved, even after trailing by as many as 16 points in the second half. But then Mississippi State — the stubborn underdog who lost to UConn the March before, 98-38, and shown up in 2017 for atonement — had somehow gotten the ball back, when the Huskies’ Saniya Chong was forced into a wild shot that was really a turnover. The Bulldog guard who had moved through a screen to do the defending was a junior named Morgan William.
Twelve seconds to go in Dallas. A thousand miles away in the Phoenix area, a sports bar crowd in town for the men’s Final Four paused to look up at the TV screens. This had to be watched. Connecticut had reeled off four consecutive national championships and not lost a game in more than three years and was playing a team it had routed in the 2016 NCAA tournament by 60 points. This was Mississippi State’s first-ever Final Four. This was UConn’s 18th. But the reign was under siege.
“(Mississippi State) having the ball with 12 seconds left was not Plan A,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma would say later.
In the UConn huddle, defensive plans were made.
Auriemma told his players the Bulldogs were to get no standstill shot, certainly no layup. Force them to take a pull-up jumper. “That’s one of the toughest shots to make from that distance under that kind of pressure,” he would say afterward.
In the Mississippi State huddle, coach Vic Schaefer had a message for William. “Morgan,” he told her, “you can win the game.” He knew what shot he wanted. He knew who he wanted to take it, and no wonder. The Bulldogs had barely made it to Dallas, beating Baylor in overtime for the regional championship, and William had scored 41 points. She stood in the huddle having gone for only 11 points in 44 minutes against Connecticut, missing 11 of 16 shots. But that didn’t matter. Later, Schaefer would say, “At the end of the day, you got to want to be in that moment. Our kids want to be in that moment.”
Oh, did she.
As the players walked back on the court, a curious stat flashed across the bottom of the television screen. Connecticut had lost its last five overtime games in a row. Of course, during the Huskies’ remarkable run, they never let games get that far. You had to go back to 2014 to find the last one. Images from the stands in Dallas showed anxious faces wearing both teams’ colors. Finally, it was time to see the ending.
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On the inbounds play, it was clear UConn did not want William with the ball. Chong played in front of her to deny her the pass, so Dominique Dillingham dribbled the ball up . . . 11 . . . 10 . . . 9 . . .
She crossed midcourt, went left, caromed off Chong, spun and went right. “We didn’t want them to penetrate too deep, which they did,” UConn’s Gabby Williams said. “We were trying to face guard a little bit and put some pressure on the guards so they couldn’t bring it up as fast.” . . . 8 . . 7 . . . 6 . . . 5 . . .
With no place to go and the seconds running out, Dillingham shoveled the ball back to William, who was standing on the midcourt Final Four logo. “Time was ticking. I knew that at the end of regulation I went for a layup and they blocked it,” William said. “I was like, 'She probably thinks I’m going to do it again.’ . . . . 3 . . . 2 . . 1 . . .
William penetrated down the right side of the lane, then lofted the shot on a high arc over Williams at 0.8 seconds. The entire college basketball-speaking community gasped at what happened next. The shot went through and Morgan Wiilliam had shocked the world. All 5-5 of her. “I always tell my team, one play doesn’t cost you a game. It almost never does,” Auriemma said. “But a lot of times one play can win you a game. That’s exactly what she did.”
As the Mississippi State team erupted in unleashed joy, William jumped into Schaefer’s arms. The embrace lasted 21 seconds. “I live for moments like this,” William would say later. In 2016 before playing Connecticut, the Bulldogs coach had his team watch Miracle, the film about the 1980 U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team and its immortal upset of the Soviet Union. The inspiration hadn’t worked very well. Not when the final score was 98-38. It was a humiliation Mississippi State had lived with for a year. “We had our pride stepped on last year,” Schaefer said. “Because of that, they’ve kind of been on a little bit of a mission.” Added the Bulldogs’ Victoria Vivians, “Like Coach said, it was personal.”
So, no movie in 2017. “It’s funny,” Schaefer said. “Last year I’m showing Miracle, this year now I’m having to live it.”
Meanwhile, over at the stunned Connecticut bench, facing defeat for the first time in 866 days, Auriemma... smiled. Smiled. “When stuff like this happens, it kind of makes me shake my head and go, `You know how many times this could have happened, and it didn’t happen?” he later explained. “I knew this was coming at some point. I’m just shocked that it took this long to get here.”
Two days later, Mississippi State lost to SEC cousin South Carolina 67-55 in the title game. No national championship. Morgan William had only two field goals. But she and her team’s Final Four moment would live forever in their sport.
“I think what we did, it gives me people hope,” Schaefer said. “If you prepare, if your student-athletes believe, on any given night anything can happen. That’s the beauty of sport.”
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Here's what your Twitter timeline may have looked like
If you were on Twitter on March 31, 2017 and April Fool's Day, here's what your Twitter timeline may have looked like, as the sports world reacted to Mississippi State's epic buzzer-beater and historic upset.