KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Admittedly, it came against an unbeatable 2016 UConn team led by Breanna Stewart. And back then Mississippi State was a less-experienced and not-as-accomplished offensive team. Still, the 38 points the Bulldogs scored in a Sweet 16 loss to the Huskies two seasons ago stuck in their craw.
And look how far they've come since. No. 1 seed Mississippi State advanced to the Final Four for the second year in a row on Sunday, beating No. 3 seed UCLA 89-73 in the Kansas City Regional final.
Last season, the Bulldogs were inspired by that 60-point loss to UConn and made it all the way to the national championship game, beating the Huskies along the way. This season, they're 36-1, SEC regular-season champions, and have an offense that coach Vic Schaefer has called the best of his career. Mississippi State is averaging 81.9 points per game this season, in contrast to 75.9 last season and 69.2 in 2015-16.
And what we saw Sunday is more proof that the Bulldogs can execute even when the heat is on the highest. With a trip to Columbus just one 10-minute quarter away, and holding a 13-point lead, the Bulldogs didn't relax, but the Bruins ferociously mounted a comeback.
Led by point guard Jordin Canada, UCLA cut the lead to six points six times in the final seven minutes of the game. But the Bulldogs never let the lead get within six, thanks to offensive execution from the entire team.
A layup by center Teaira McCowan. A 3-pointer by Blair Schaefer. Two layups from Victoria Vivians. A free throw from Vivians. A 3-point play from McCowan. Those were the answers Mississippi State had, and the Bulldogs finally put the Bruins down for the count.
"We're just different because of our skill set," Vic Schaefer said of the Bulldogs' offensive prowess even compared to last year's Final Four team. "Because we've got kids that can stretch it and shoot it, and you've got the big piece inside [McCowan] where you just can't double on her. If you do, we can play through her, and she is really good at that."
Meaning, of course, that McCowan doesn't force shots, she can find open shooters and has become a much better passer.
Schaefer then added of point guard Morgan William, "Now you have Morgan, who has decided she is excited about scoring. And that adds a dimension that we probably haven't had consistently all year."
Mississippi State had all five starters score in double figures twice this season, and almost made it a third time Sunday. Vivians led the way with 24 points, and she shared regional most outstanding player honors with McCowan, who had 23 points and a career-high 21 rebounds. William had 17 points; she has averaged 13.5 points in her last six games. Roshunda Johnson had 12 points, and Blair Schaefer nine.
The Bulldogs shot 50 percent from the field (29 of 58) and were even better from 3-point range at 61.5 percent (8 of 13). They also made 23-of-27 free throws, with 9-of-11 coming from McCowan.
"We've grown a lot since last year," Vivians said. "We could get very stagnant on offense, and we had scorers, but they didn't always score regularly. This year, I feel like everybody's attacking, and they're not afraid. We've got an inside game and an outside game. Offensively, everybody is confident."
Blair Schaefer had struggled with her shot in four of the Bulldogs' last five games, with the exception being her 18 points in the NCAA tournament first-round victory over Nicholls State. She was scoreless against South Carolina in the SEC tournament final -- the Bulldogs' only loss this season -- and also Friday in the regional semifinal victory over NC State.
She doesn't necessarily expect to score a lot and doesn't worry about much as long as she is contributing in other ways. But it was a big lift for her to shoot 3-of-3 from long range on Sunday, including a huge shot with 5:48 left that helped stave off the Bruins.
"I've been in a funk lately, and my coach has told me, 'Don't worry about it; you've made those shots all year,'" Blair said. "My teammates kept telling me, 'You have to have your feet ready, be ready to shoot,' and that let me know they still had confidence in me to make those shots. And today was a great day to make those."
"We've grown a lot since last year. We could get very stagnant on offense, and we had scorers, but they didn't always score regularly. This year, I feel like everybody's attacking. ... We've got an inside game and an outside game." Victoria Vivians on Mississippi State's improved offense
McCowan tied an NCAA tournament record for most made field goals without a miss on Friday, going 11-of-11 from the field against NC State. She wasn't as accurate against UCLA, going 7-of-15, but her putback of William's miss with 52 seconds left was the final dagger against the Bruins. She converted that into the three-point play, and it stretched the Bulldogs' lead back to nine.
The final minute, then, was all-Bulldogs, whose fans made up the majority of the crowd of 4,089 at Sprint Center. Mississippi State has done better each year it has been in the NCAA tournament under Schaefer, who took over the program in 2012. In his first NCAA tournament appearance with the Bulldogs, in 2015, they advanced to the second round. In 2016, they made the Sweet 16. Last year, they lost to South Carolina in the national championship game.
This year, the only way to do better is to win the NCAA title. Next up, in the national semifinals, is a difficult matchup with another No. 1 seed, Louisville. The Cardinals looked exceptionally good in their Elite Eight victory Sunday against Oregon State, playing both great defense and offense.
So it projects to be an intense and entertaining battle in Columbus. The Bulldogs were the newcomers at the Final Four last year, a No. 2 seed that pulled an upset over Baylor in overtime in the regional final, and then an even bigger upset against UConn, also in overtime, in the national semifinals to snap the Huskies' NCAA-record 111-game winning streak.
This year, the Bulldogs aren't underdogs at all. They've played with poise and experience all season, and now they hope to show those qualities on the biggest stage again.
"I just felt like they were as ready to play as they have been all year long," Vic Schaefer said of his players' mindset Sunday. "To be where they are, to do what they've done is really, really difficult to do."