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Short memory key for two top shooters in NCAA title game

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Nell Yes: National championship matchup (1:23)

SEC Now's Nell Fortner discusses the national title game between South Carolina and Mississippi State and what it means to have two SEC teams reach the championship. (1:23)

DALLAS -- What happened just one side of midnight Friday in the American Airlines Center is now a measurement of time for women's basketball.

Where you were and what you were doing when Mississippi State's Morgan William hit an arcing shot as time expired in overtime to beat Connecticut is a calendar or clock unto itself. Events henceforth will be measured to and from that moment.

That was true even for members of the South Carolina team, who themselves booked passage to Sunday's national championship game hours earlier. So the first question Gamecocks guard Kaela Davis heard when she sat down Saturday was not about her team's win but where and how she watched the upset a sport waited years to see. It turned out that by the time William hit the final shot, she was watching with her dad, former NBA player Antonio Davis, two basketball fans soaking it in.

Victoria Vivians had a better seat, although not one she wanted to be in. The Mississippi State forward was on the Bulldogs bench, at the same end of the court as William's shot, having fouled out earlier in overtime. By the time she and her teammates got back to the team hotel and waded through the throng of well-wishers for what she guessed was an hour, she had no difficulty sleeping the slumber of the contented.

In the moment Friday and after the fact Saturday, Davis and Vivians weren't particularly concerned with a few missed shots. Maybe more than a few. Vivians was Mississippi State's leading scorer this season and against Connecticut, and Davis was South Carolina's second-leading scorer this season. They combined to miss 25 field goal attempts in the semifinals. They made eight field goals, six by Vivians.

Each will want to remember Friday for a long time, the chance to play for a championship so much a part of two distinct paths to Sunday's game.

But both must also be masters of the short memory. Scorers must always be.

"You can't let it get to you," Davis said of her 2-for-15 shooting against Stanford. "A lot of people are checking on me today, making sure I'm all right. But I'm good, I'm OK. ... I've experienced this before; I've been in this situation before. Obviously, I'm going to do what I can to work any kinks out during practice, the time that we do get on the floor, just to get some shots up."

The same goes for Vivians, who missed 11 of her first 16 shots against Connecticut but hit the next one, a 3-pointer with 74 seconds left in regulation that put Mississippi State ahead.

"I know I miss shots," Vivians said. "You're going to miss shots. You can't make every shot you shoot. So I just feel like the next shot I shoot is going to go in. I guess it's a shooter's mentality. Don't ever just stop believing in yourself, because if you stop believing, you know you're not going to make the shot. If coach calls it, you shoot it and make it."

Spoken like someone who scored 5,745 points in high school, more than almost any player in the history of the sport at that level (for context, that's 2,000-plus more points than Washington's Kelsey Plum scored to break the NCAA career record). Vivians struggled in all but one of five previous career games against South Carolina, including both this season, but the Gamecocks, like the entire SEC, know she is a fuse waiting to be lit.

"That kid, she moves really well without the ball," Davis said. "And she just gets shots off so quickly. I think that's the biggest thing is, you can never just be relaxed. You always have to, as coach says, stay engaged with wherever she is, whatever she's doing. You've got to find her in transition. She's such an active player, that can be kind of tough to guard sometimes, honestly."

Bulldogs associate head coach Johnnie Harris -- the architect of Mississippi State's recruiting success, as she was alongside head coach Vic Schaefer when both were assistant coaches at Texas A&M -- said the new staff prioritized Vivians before they ever saw her play. They couldn't let that prodigious a scorer, who included Kentucky and Louisville among her final college choices, slip out of state.

When they did see her, competing in drills in high school in which three or four teammates would guard her at once, under penalty of sprints if she scored, it only confirmed the advance reviews.

Geography was on their side. Vivians is from the small town of Carthage, Mississippi, which she described as having one stoplight on a state highway to slow traffic that otherwise rarely pauses in a place with no more than a car wash, a gas station and a Dollar General to recommend it. But it is home. Schaefer and Harris convinced her that staying close didn't mean giving up on a title. Others told her those were mutually exclusive. She believed otherwise.

"Mississippi State had never done anything like this in women's basketball, or probably over the whole school," Vivians said. "So just being able to do that, I feel like we'll always have that legacy at State. Like we started it. And hopefully it will carry on through the years."

The class of Vivians and William, now juniors, provided star power on top of the current seniors. Those two classes accounted for 199 of 225 minutes played in the overtime semifinal.

"[Mississippi State] has been together," Davis said. "I don't think people really realize that, but this team has been playing together for a couple of years now. So they have that kind of connection with each other that even we had to find. ... Our team, we had to find that chemistry, that connection point."

No small part of that was fitting in Davis, who transferred to South Carolina after first choosing a Georgia Tech program close to her home, a la Vivians, that had only a modest history of success. But while Mississippi State took off under Schaefer, Georgia Tech stagnated through the two seasons Davis was there, even as she scored at will.

"I guess it's a shooter's mentality. Don't ever just stop believing in yourself, because if you stop believing, you know you're not going to make the shot. If coach calls it, you shoot it and make it."

-- Victoria Vivians

Davis scored 37 points in her debut for South Carolina, on the road at a ranked Ohio State team in November. It was perhaps the best and worst possible entrance, a showcase of the skills that will eventually make her a coveted prize in the WNBA but also an impossible standard to meet moving forward on a team that also included A'ja Wilson, Alaina Coates and Allisha Gray.

Now an assistant coach at South Carolina, Fred Chmiel was on the staff at Minnesota when that team played Davis' Georgia Tech.

"She was the focal point," Chmiel said. "She was in the middle of the floor. Every entry went to her. Every play ran through her. So she's had to kind of find her way amongst a very talented squad."

While any team will miss a post presence such as Coates, a senior whose injured ankle knocked her out of the entire tournament, Chmiel noted that South Carolina's reshuffling without her hasn't been all bad for Davis. The scorer now has a little more room to operate, and is able to see the floor better and exploit new driving lanes.

"She's an offensive machine for South Carolina," Vivians said. "I feel like if we stop her and just have one aspect of their offense gone, I feel like we have a chance to win."

Some of that will likely be up to Vivians, as it was against UConn's Katie Lou Samuelson on Friday. Both Davis and Vivians expressed satisfaction with their defensive performances Friday, sentiments backed up by their respective coaching staffs. Each has learned in college that there are days when the shots won't fall, when a player's value depends on doing other things. It is part of the reason each is one win from a championship.

That is what Davis wanted when she transferred, having learned that not every building project comes off quite as well as the one in Starkville.

"You believe so much in situations, you put yourself in situations because you believe in them," Davis said. "It was hard to come to that conclusion. At the same time, being where I am now, I'm thankful that I was able to make a decision for myself."

There is no looking back.

Neither of two scorers who may decide a championship can afford to spend time doing that.