KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Mississippi State is headed to the Final Four for the second year in a row, and this time will do so as a No. 1 seed with just one loss. The Bulldogs beat No. 3 seed UCLA 89-73 in the Kansas City Regional final on Sunday.
Last year, it took 41 points from guard Morgan William and overtime for the Bulldogs to beat Baylor in the regional final. But Sunday against the Bruins, they played strong defense and put in a very good offensive performance, led by senior guard Victoria Vivians with 24 points and junior center Teaira McCowan with 23 points and a career-high 21 rebounds.
Even so, the Bruins never gave up, cutting the lead to single digits in the closing minutes and making the Bulldogs work until the end.
Mississippi State won the SEC regular-season title with a perfect record, and maintained that all the way until the conference tournament title game. There, the Bulldogs lost to South Carolina, which also beat them last year in the national championship game.
But Mississippi State bounced back from that loss at the SEC tournament in Nashville to beat Nicholls State, Oklahoma State, NC State and UCLA for a trip to Columbus, Ohio.
"It's good to have four seniors ... and it's bad to have four seniors because whenever that last [game] is, you're going to miss those kids," said Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer, whose seniors are Vivians, William, Roshunda Johnson and his daughter, Blair Schaefer. "These four are unbelievably special. Those types of recruiting classes you hope come around all the time, but unfortunately, they don't.
"I like their leadership; I like their focus. They know their days are coming down to a close at Mississippi State, but I don't think any of them are ready for it to end just yet."
UCLA says goodbye to a stellar senior class of Jordin Canada, Monique Billings and Kelli Hayes, who helped the program to three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, including the Bruins' first Elite Eight since 1999. Canada led UCLA with 23 points, eight rebounds and five assists Sunday.
Player of the game: No player has upped her WNBA draft stock more this season than Vivians, and this regional was another example of why. She went 10-of-17 from the field Sunday, and was again an important part of Mississippi State's defense, as she was Friday in the Sweet 16. She had 16 points in the first half, and when the game got tight in the fourth quarter, she drove the lane for some big baskets. Obviously, McCowan gets a big nod, too, as does William, who had 17 points, five rebounds and five assists.
McCowan and Vivians were named co-most outstanding player of the regional.
How it was won: Mississippi State controlled the game much of the way, leading by 16 at halftime and by 13 to start the fourth quarter. But that's when the game got really intense. UCLA went on a 9-0 run to cut the Bulldogs' lead to single digits, 67-61, with 6 minutes, 46 seconds left.
Then the Bulldogs went back to their bread and butter, feeding the ball inside to McCowan for an easy basket, and getting a 3-pointer from Schaefer to make it 72-63 with 5:45 left. UCLA wasn't done, though, cutting the lead to six again, 74-68, with 2:53 left on Japreese Dean's 3-pointer. Vivians answered with a driving layup, but UCLA then got two free throws from Kennedy Burke.
Who had the answer once again? Vivians, whose layup put Mississippi State up 78-70 with 1:55 left. Dean hit another jump shot to make it 78-72 with 1:50 left. Vivians drove once more, was fouled and made one of two free throws to put the Bulldogs up by seven.
Canada drove the lane and was fouled by McCowan, and made one of two free throws. So the Bulldogs went into the final minute up by six. William missed a shot on a drive, but McCowan was there for the putback and was fouled, converting the 3-point play for an 82-73 lead. William made two free throws to make it 84-73 with 45.8 seconds left, followed by five free throws from McCowan as the Bulldogs closed out the victory.
Stat of the game: McCowan had her 27th double-double of the season. After tying an NCAA tournament record by going 11-of-11 from the field in the regional semifinals against the Wolfpack, McCowan had a harder time finding the bottom of the net Sunday. Still, she was 7=of-15 from the field.
What's next: The Bulldogs (36-1) move on to face fellow No. 1 seed Louisville in the national semifinals on Friday in Columbus, Ohio. UCLA finishes its season 27-8.