By Mike Siroky
Oklahoma City Final
Mississippi State 94, Baylor 85 (OT)
It is always nice when a No. 1 seed meets a No. 2 for the right to advance to the Final Four, because the Selection Committee gets one right.
Mississippi State (33-5) has yet to lose to a non-conference opponent. The Big 12 and Big 10 are done. The SEC is not.
Naturally, Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer switched his starters up and reinserted leading scorer and All-SEC shooter Victoria Vivians.
But what he did with point guard Morgan William is legendary.
The starters in the three previous NCAA games were available as topline subs.
Vivians responded with the first five points (including a 3) and State hung tough. Then in came senior center Chimwe Okorie, another all-SEC starter for 33 games, at the first time out,
Baylor’s leadings scorer, Kalani Brown, had five of her usual 15 and the Bears led, 9-5. Two William free throws and it was 9-7.
Nobody in the gym could have guessed it was the start of a career night.
They started settling in, trading point for point. Vivians’ second 3 untied it, but they kicked it out of bounds with a chance to extend. No one was in control.
The quarter ended with Mississippi State ahead, 21-19. Vivians had eight and William seven.
They had forced five turnovers. Teaira McCowan, the 6-7 center, was 0-for-everything.
No breakaway was in sight, truly a 1 vs. 2.
It was 43-40 at the half and everyone anticipated which team could make the tweak that made a difference.
Vivians had 15 with two assists and two steals. If this were the only game in the past five you saw, you would understand why sometimes she is mentioned among the elite.
William had 19 with two 3s and two assists. McCowan got eight in the second quarter but only one rebound. That was the area of interest.
Both teams deserved to win. It was just one of those games.
Baylor won the third quarter, 21-17, but with seven minutes left in someone’s season it as 63-all. Baylor averaged 86 all year, 10 more than Mississippi State. But State allowed 56 and Baylor 60, so neither defense was working to average.
Two minutes later and Mississippi State had a two-point edge. Vivians had 19 but McCowan was stuck on eight, having not scored since halftime.
Both sides were nervous as player careers clicked toward a forever finish. Each were fighting to represent their conference.
Morgan William hit a 3 then a conventional basket. Baylor answered with a 3 by senior Alexis Jones. William countered with a 3. Baylor senior Nina Davis hit a layup then it was time out.
McCowan hit two free throws, finally in double figures.
Three minutes to go and Mississippi State had a three-point lead. William made a defensive error and fouled Jones from way out as the shot clock expired. Jones hit all three, 12 points for the half.
Mississippi State turned it over with two minutes left.
Kalani Brown bulled over William, but she evidently was too short for the refs to see and the basket counted.
Seventy-seven seconds left, then potential disaster.
McCowan tripped over a prone teammate who had fallen on her own and there was a possible deciding turnover.
What a way to lose the edge, nothing of Baylor’s doing.
Perhaps a makeup call. Baylor turned it over and William flitted in among the trees to tie it with 22.6 seconds left.
Heavy discussions by both benches.
This was already a classic.
Baylor went full court on the inbounds, muffed the drive and McCowan tied up the rebound, 3.4 left. Baylor’s possession under its own basket.
It is only fitting to go to OT. McCowan swatted the ball past midcourt on the inbounds attempt and that was regulation at 75-all.
Mississippi State had five more 3s and three less made free throws. Baylor had nine more rebounds.
Was there a missed point opportunity in there somewhere?
William took control. Mississippi State outscored Baylor, 19-10, had blown up their defensive average allowed by 34.
But first, Mississippi State won the tip.
Baylor twice fouled. Blair Schaefer hit two free throws.
Baylor missed a 3, Vivians hit one.
By the time 2:15 was left, Mississippi State had an 82-81 lead.
Then came the run that everyone in StarkVegas will forever swear they knew was coming.
William, of course, hit a 3. Vivians claimed a rebound, was fouled and hit both free throws.
William made four straight free throws, with a McCowan rebound in the middle of it.
McCowan got a steal and who else would you throw it to but William and she hit both free throws when fouled.
They repeated the process. William claimed the final rebound.
Baylor lost its third Elite 8, the second in a row. Schaefer had won the coaching battle.
William had 14 3s all season. She was 6-of-8 this game. She was 9-of-10 from the line. She scored a career-best 41 points, with seven assists and no turnovers and even a block.
It is the most NCAA points scored by any player in this program. She had 11 points total in the previous three games.
Try scouting Schaefer.
He told her to drive from the start. The plan worked.
She took her whole team along as passengers to the Final Four. Vivians scored 24, with six rebounds and six assists. The opposing coach sadly credited her with setting more screens than usual. Again, try scouting Schaefer. They caused 17 turnovers while committing four.
Mississippi State gets the winner of the Bridgeport Regional, to be contested Monday night.
“Oh my God is good!,” said Schaefer. Another record win to go with a program-first Final Four.
“What an unbelievable effort by our kids,
“You talk about tough as nails.
“You talk about leadership.”
He paused to hug a crying point guard.
“How about this little one right here?
“She is my other daughter. They all are, but she more so because of what she has been through.”
William said through the tears: “This was for dad (on the three-year anniversary of his death).
“I just know coach Schaefer told us don’t go out there nervous, just play your game and that is what we did.”
William was the Most Outstanding Player of the Regional, of course. The vote could have been taken by acclamation.
“I’m honored and humbled to be here. So proud of my girls and our team. What a tremendous effort today. It took a gut-check, gut-wrenching performance by our kids today, and we delivered.
“I thought our kids were unflappable. I thought they were resilient. They showed tremendous toughness, a lot of character, and their heart. You have no idea what’s inside their breastplate, but you saw it today displayed firsthand.
“They just played with a tremendous amount of poise. Our point guard was as good as they get today. She put us on her back. She led us. She was obviously feeling it.
“Ran a couple different things for her. Just had to keep going back because they were having a hard time dealing with it. She wanted the ball.
“Thought Tori (Vivians) was back to herself today. I welcomed her to the party about midway through the third quarter. Told her that.
“It sure helps to have that out there on the perimeter, that big two guard that can get you a bucket, can rise up and jump over people.
“For our seniors, they believed in a vision when it wasn’t real easy to believe. I’m really happy for them. I know how hard they’ve worked. I know the blood, sweat and tears, the commitment they’ve put into this.
“I couldn’t be happier for them. I couldn’t be happier for our university, administration.
Tremendous basketball at Mississippi State. We’re seventh in the country in attendance and our administration supports these young ladies and gives them every opportunity to be successful.
They’re reaping the dividends, because these kids are doing everything that they’re supposed to do right now.
“I’m awfully proud of them. Giving God the glory for No. 33 (wins) today.”
William reiterated the coach led her success and that the inspiration of her dad looking down at her was more than enough.
“Just confidence,” she said. “I mean, I came out here early to shoot because I had issues the last couple games. I was feeling it. Coach let me make them. It opened shots for my teammates, too.
“When I was open, I knew I could knock down the shot. That really helped us from inside-out. It was just tough to guard us.”
As for her dad, “I mean, I was just using it as motivation. He’s the reason I am where I am today in basketball. He just did so much for me working out when I was younger. Everyone doubted me because of my height. Did so much work in the gym. For me to come out and do that, it’s amazing. I just wish he was here to see it.”
Vivians’ triumphant return as a prime time player led her to be self-deprecating.
“If you were on the court, you wouldn’t say I maintained my composure.
“I just tried to keep it together for my teammates because if the call didn’t go my way, another call would go our way on the other end. I just kept playing and knew we had to keep playing in order to win the game.
“It felt good. But mainly today I was really focused on my defense, because I knew our defense was going to win the game. Like Coach says, keep shooting, the shots will fall eventually. I was just mainly worried about my defense.”
William said the 24 lead changes kept everyone focused.
“I mean, that’s why it’s a game of runs. We live for moments like this, back-to-back lead changes.
“We just know we got to make a run when they make a run.
“Got to get stops in. Once we make our run, we got to get stops and keep running from there. I feel like we did that. We got a stop, and we kept executing. After that, we got a lead.”
Dominque Dillingham, a senior and sometime starter, came in at a critical span in the second half.
“I just knew I had to stay ready. I knew my time was going to come to play defense. So I just had to keep myself ready. I was just happy for my teammates. They played really well tonight.
“Coach needed a little more offense tonight. I’m completely fine with that. I was ready when my time was called. I was ready to play defense.”
They joined the nation in appreciating their point guard.
Dillingham: “I’m just so happy for her. I’m just so proud of her. I know she does it for her dad. I just feel so proud for her because I know how hard she worked for this moment.
“I know people doubt our team, but people doubt her as a point guard just because how small she is.
“They’re not that valid in that. I love the way she plays. She was just awesome tonight.
Breanna Richardson: “That was really good; basically same thing Dom said. We live and die by Morgan at times. So her and her point guard play, she just gets us going. We know when Morgan’s going, we’re all going.
“Just to see her come out, 6-of-8 from the 3, it was amazing. When you just see her going, we’re like, ‘Give her the ball. We can’t stop her, so just keep giving her the ball.’
“To see her have a game like this, it’s amazing. Like you say, everybody doubts us and they always doubt her. I just got to say congrats.”
Vivians: Well, I know tonight she got my assists up. I had six.”
Schaeffer interjected: “Career high,” and he laughed.”
She replied: “I’ll take that,” and she laughed.
“But I’m just proud of her. She can do this on any given night. You never know with her. If she’s in attack mode, she’s going and doing it. I am super proud of her. She’s my point guard. We’re together a whole ’nother year. I’m happy to have her.”
Schaeffer obviously will stick with his guards, evem of the others were taller.
“I thought even though (8-7) Kalani (Brown) went 11-of-13, and 5-11 senior Nina (Davis) was 7-of-11, I thought the game turned into a guard game toward the end of the half. I love my guards. I am not trading ‘em for anybody.
“I thought after watching them against Louisville in person, I thought we could do some things.
“You know, again, at some point I think you’ve got to learn to stop -- stop worrying about trying to guard somebody and try to figure out, OK, let’s just try to score more than they do.
“Boy, I thought we were really good offensively. It starts with Morgan. But it also starts with Tori making a couple shots early, because you can just see our team relax.
“When she’s taking good shots, -- she took a couple bad ones in the first half -- but just getting her back to the party. I mean, I did, I told her in the -- I think it was the second or third quarter, I said, ‘Welcome back to the party, baby. You’re playing good.’ It just relaxes the whole team when she plays like that.
“Morgan obviously was feeling it. I was running about three different things for her, just trying to mix it up so they couldn’t get comfortable with her.
“They had two different people on her.
“Every time we switched, she switched somebody on her. We went right back to the first play.
“Just tried to really be engaged offensively, hoped that we could get enough stops down the stretch.”
He touched again on William dealing her dad’s death before she was a freshman, before the program erupted
“ Well, obviously it was a tragic thing. It was sudden. I still remember where I was standing when I got the phone call. Her dad was so proud that she was coming to Mississippi State. I had just been with him at the Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Game. Like she said, he ate, drank and slept training her.
“You know, the three-year anniversary of his passing. I remember going to the funeral and all that, again, before she ever stepped foot on campus.
“It’s tough for her. That’s the kind of kid, though, she is. She appreciates everything that he done for her to get her to this point. You know, Morgan rooms with Blair (his daughter). She’s at my house probably more than anybody on the team. She’s very, very special to Holly and I.
“You know, she’s obviously very special to Blair. So it’s tough sometimes for kids. But I thought she bottled it up nicely today and really played to an audience of one.”
He again explained the benching of Vivians and her comeback.
“I think, again, nobody knows us better than the people in our league, Mo. 1. She gets everybody’s best defender, everybody’s best defensive game plan.
“But the other piece was, you know, we watched some film together one morning. We talked about good shot, bad shot, you’re running out of your shot here, stay in your shot.
“Sometimes it’s just as simple as, you know what, you’re making three out of 10, how about following your shot and go getting some of those misses? What that creates is a little more focus.
“If you tell somebody, ‘Go follow your shot every time you shoot it,’ now they tend to stay in their shot and they don’t tend to drift, they tend to follow it. “Now they stay with a good foundation. We talked about that a little bit.
“She’s been shooting it great in practice. Last four, five days, those kids were chomping at the bit to get back in the starting lineup. I knew yesterday I was going to do it, get them back in, so . . . .
“What a great day to get back in and play like they did.
“Again, all I’ve done is just tried to tell her, ‘Hey, you’re shooting it good. You shot it well today in practice. You’re making good decisions.’
“I think you’ve got to fill her head, anybody, you got to keep being positive with kids. I think that was the biggest thing with her, is just trying to stay positive with her.
“But at the same time, you know, the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again if it is not working. Just trying to coach her, teach her, let her know the importance of getting her back.
“I told her before we left town, ‘Hey, we won’t win this weekend without you. We won’t win without you being an impact player.’
“But I’ve told y’all every press conference, I don’t worry about Tori. I’ve just seen her do it way too many times. She made that shot off the glass, I’ve seen her make a hundred of them. It’s not that she’s calling it, but I’ve still seen her make ’em.
“So, it doesn’t surprise me.”
He said the other switchout, at center was made with much acceptance by those players.
“Those two bigs, I try to rotate them in and out. I don't want them to get back-to-backs. Chinwe was starting earlier. Teaira came off the bench, she was SEC Six Player of the Year. Teaira has been playing better, so I've been starting her. I don't need Teaira in foul trouble. Those two good a little bit of yo-yo, so to speak. The rest of the kids, I don't think I pulled them as much as those two.
“Just trying to keep them in the game, impacting the game, is really big for us. Teaira obviously had a huge game for us on Friday.
“I knew Baylor was probably going to come after her a little bit today. They went right to her early and often, got a quick one on her. So that’s kind of the game I have to play with those two down there. That's two aircraft carriers that do a great job for us and have really impacted our team and our program.
“Those two have great chemistry. When one’s in, the other's out, they’re both cheering for each other. There's a lot of love between those two.”
Going forward, he knows a Final Four appearance is a marker every team wants. He was the well-credited defensive coach for Gary Blair when A&M won the national title in 2011.
“I do have a little experience of being with a national championship team. I know what it looks like. I knew what this looked like with this team. I’ve told them since Day 1, I thought they were a Final Four team. I thought they were good enough to win it.
“What it takes to get it to this level this quick is a tremendous commitment from your administration. We knew what 13-17 looked like that first season. We didn’t panic. We signed those four freshmen, though, before we ever played a game, because we might not have got them if they’d have seen us play that first year.
“At the same time, those kids, we went and got kids that could impact our program at that time, then we backed it up with a top-20 recruiting class. Since then we’ve had another top-20 recruiting class.
“But I tell you, the biggest key for me was Johnnie Harris coming with me. I couldn’t have done it without her. I wasn’t coming to Mississippi State without her. This would never have happened if she said, ‘Vic, I’m not going.’ That was the first thing.
“I’m smart enough to know I cannot do it by myself. I have to have a great staff. I have an unbelievable staff. Great role models, great coaches, great teachers of the game.
“What goes into it is a commitment and a love for kids that it’s got to be your every thought every day all day long. I mean, we’re in the kid business. “Sometimes you have to make decisions that have nothing to do with basketball, but if you really care about the kid, and that’s first and foremost with us, I think those are the things you have to do.
“My staff deserves so much credit, so much credit, for where we are today, what we’re doing with these young ladies.
“Again, I think, just like Geno would tell you, it’s the quality of the young ladies that we have, their character, what they’re made of, what’s inside their breastplate.
“That’s the piece that is hard to get to know when you’re recruiting. That’s the piece that I want my staff to get to know before we ever make a commitment to a young lady.
“We got to make sure they’re committed like we are because nobody works harder in the country than my staff, I promise you.
“Praise the Lord and Go ’Dogs!”
Attendance, 3,128, easily outdrew Notre Dame’s 2,537 at Lexington, The NCAA selectors decided to not send an SEC team to an SEC site and this is what happens.
Once they placed Kentucky as a No. 4 courtesy seed in Lexington, no other league team can be seeded higher.
In a final note: The win ensures two No. 1 seeds were made incorrectly. It also assures at least one team coached by a man who was not a No. 1 seed advances for the second straight season.
Someday, it is hoped, the Selection Committee will look at facts rather than convenience.
No. 1 South Carolina (30-4), vs. No. 3 Florida State (28-6)
The Gamecocks will take on the Seminoles in a Regional final for the second time in three seasons.
Florida State ended its season with two losses, a blowout at Notre Dame and an edging by Miami in the opener of the ACC tournament.
In their semifinal, they shut down Oregon State senior star Sydney Wiese. She was 0-for-10 from 3land after setting conference records in 3s.
In that semifinal win, Florida State came from a 21-4 deficit to win by 13. The semifinals drew 4,500, second to UConn’s 8,830.
Shakayla Thomas leads at 15.2 points per game. Senior guard Leticia Romero is at 12.3. Imani Wright is at 10.8
But their emotional leader is 6-1 senior Ivey Slaughter. She is the leading rebounder and free-throw scorer.
In the semifinal, she ignited the second-half surge, almost completing the improbable triple in points (11), rebounds (8) and steals (9).
They lead opponents in rebounds by 10 per game. They score 79 and allow 58, a mirror of South Carolina’s 77 and 56.
Defense once again will rule.