It was late in the third quarter and it looked like Connecticut may have righted the ship against Mississippi State. Its defensive intensity had picked up and the Huskies’ zone defense was forcing the Bulldogs to hang onto the ball too long, unable to get an open look from the outside, or to get the ball inside to their 6-7 center, Teaira McCowan. The predominantly Huskies crowd — that had watched UConn go down by 16 in the first quarter but then outscore Mississippi State in the third –was hopeful.
But then Mississippi State’s unflappable point guard Morgan William found the equally unflappable Victoria Vivians in the corner as the shot clock wound down. The money ball went into the net and restored the Bulldogs’ slim lead. The ESPN camera cut to UConn grads Breanna Stewart and Morgan Tuck in the stands and caught
Stewart slapping her knees in frustration and looking around as if to say, “This shouldn’t be happening.” But it was happening — and there was nothing Stewie could do about it.
You know by now that the game went into OT, where William hit the shot heard round the basketball world to win the game as the buzzer went off. Pundits are calling it the biggest win in women’s basketball ever! And certainly, the revenge was sweet. Having lost last year to UConn by 60 in the Bridgeport regional Sweet Sixteen game, Mississippi State provided the unequivocally perfect end to UConn’s 111-game win streak.
After last year’s humiliating loss, Mississippi coach Vic Schaefer had said of UConn, “They are like piranhas at a roast. You can’t get that bone out of there fast enough.” But it was principally Breanna Stewart he was talking about.
“It’s a nightmare,” Schaefer said about trying to stop Stewart. “It’s a challenge. That’s what great players do. That’s what great teams have.”
Breanna Stewart ended her Huskies career last April by leading UConn to its fourth championship in a row. She was the Final Four MVP in each of her four years at Connecticut. She finished her Huskies run on a 75-game winning streak, but even before her college career ended, Geno Auriemma began contemplating the end of UConn’s streak.
“Right now at this point in time, everything that she does, it hits me a little bit harder because I know I’m never going to see this again,” he said after the rout of Mississippi State last March.
That Connecticut won 36 more games without Stewart is a testament to Auriemma’s ability to get the most out of a young, mostly untested team that he admitted didn’t really have an identity.
To their credit, UConn rallied from a 16-point deficit, its biggest during its NCAA record streak, to take a 59-56 lead in the fourth quarter. And yes, UConn junior Gabby Williams came up big, with a (Stewie-esque) block with the score tied to send the game into overtime. But she and her teammates fumbled and stumbled, missed key free throws, and made bad decisions with the ball as the clock wound down, especially in overtime. They were ripe for this upset because they were, in many ways, rudderless.
When William (aka”itty bitty”) hit her shot to win the game for Mississippi 66-64, all Geno could do was smile. I half expected him to look up into the stands to catch Stewart’s eye.
I’m not saying the Huskies can’t win any more championships. The UConn players will be watching the tape of this game a few times before next season starts, I’m sure. Duke’s 6-6 center, Azura Stevens, who sat out this year after transferring to UConn, (and would have been a big help last night) also will be on the court next year. By all accounts they have one of the best recruiting classes they’ve had, well, since they recruited Stewart.
Meanwhile, Mississippi State will be hoping to knock off their third number one seed Sunday night in the National Championship game against South Carolina. It’s a rematch between two powerful Southeastern Conference teams. Though South Carolina won their two meetings during the regular season, the outcome is by no means assured. I’m guessing lots of people will tune in just to see who the first winner of the post-UConn-juggernaut-era will be. I know some fans (including me) who didn’t go to Dallas this year because they couldn’t see spending that much money to watch another blowout. Now that the sea has parted, (or until UConn figures out how to replace Stewie), it’s going to be fun to see what parity might mean for the women’s game.