COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Mississippi State's Teaira McCowan was asked if she ever would have believed as a freshman that she'd play 45 minutes in a game. She gave a look like, "You've got to be kidding."
When you're 6-foot-7, running up and down, and getting beaten up by the defense, time can feel like it's doubled. You can really get worn out. But McCowan is now a junior, has gotten very fit, and was ready to stay on court as long as it took to beat Louisville on Friday.
For the second consecutive year, the Bulldogs won an overtime game in the national semifinals and will play for the NCAA championship. Last year, it was a dramatic buzzer-beater by point guard Morgan William that led Mississippi State over UConn.
This time, it was another guard, Roshunda Johnson, who had a big shot in the closing seconds of regulation, and the Bulldogs then closed out a 73-63 overtime victory against their fellow No. 1-seeded Cardinals.
This was a game that was tough to predict, because the teams were so similar. And it turned out to be just what most people expected: a back-and-forth, nerve-wracking exercise in perseverance.
In the end, the Bulldogs were able to get a few more big plays. And they had the "Big T," who grabbed a Women's Final Four-record 25 rebounds to go with her 21 points and three blocked shots.
McCowan now has an NCAA single tournament-record 92 rebounds, with one more game to add to that total. She has 28 double-doubles this season, which is an SEC record, putting her ahead of league all-time greats Sylvia Fowles of LSU and Murriel Page of Florida.
"As for rebounds, Coach always says, 'Go get them all,' " McCowan said. "So that's what I try to do."
Coach Vic Schaefer smiled at that and said, "She's coachable."
The 37-1 Bulldogs' only loss was in the SEC tournament final against South Carolina when McCowan got into foul trouble. That resulted in their lowest point total, 51.
Friday's semifinal was against a very tough Louisville defense, and it looked in the fourth quarter as if the Cardinals would prevail. They led by as much as seven with 7 minutes, 14 seconds left in the game. And senior Victoria Vivians, the Bulldogs' top scorer this season, had four fouls.
"That was probably the toughest defensive team we've played," William said of the Cardinals. "They did to us what we do to people."
But this is a Bulldog team that starts four seniors and a junior, and they don't panic.
"We're built for this," William said. "We're built for tough times."
Vivians, despite her foul trouble, drove for a layup. Jordan Danberry, a redshirt sophomore guard who started her career at Arkansas before transferring to Mississippi State, rebounded a Louisville miss and got a layup.
About a minute later, the smallest player on the floor, William, blocked a shot, then fed McCowan for a layup. One more layup from McCowan put the Bulldogs back on top 54-53. Then Louisville's Sam Fuehring was called for a foul on McCowan, whom she battled all night, and then was hit with a technical for slapping the floor in frustration. That sent Fuehring to the bench for the rest of the game, as she fouled out.
Fuehring had said before the game that her goal was to try to bug McCowan as much as possible. And she did her best. But McCowan kept her cool.
"I had a moment where I had to just lay on the floor and just breathe," McCowan said of how she dealt with her emotions during the game. "So I had to catch myself before I let her get under my skin."
Plus, McCowan had her teammates to help with that.
"We've got her back," William said. "We get in huddles and talk about stuff. And we say important stuff; we don't just huddle for no reason."
William hit two free throws after the technical, but then she had a turnover. Louisville was able to take back the lead, going up 59-56 on Myisha Hines-Allen's layup with 11 seconds left.
The Bulldogs subbed in starter Blair Schaefer, who had gone to the floor hard a couple of times earlier in the game in attempts to take charges. Schaefer led the Bulldogs in 3-pointers this season, so even though she was scoreless Friday, the Cardinals had to guard her.
But McCowan, who with her size can set one heck of a screen, did that ... for Johnson, the Bulldogs' second-leading 3-point shooter this season. At that point in the game, Johnson had not made a trey, but she shot 42.5 percent from long range this season.
And she nailed this one, tying the game. Johnson, who transferred to Mississippi State after two seasons at Oklahoma State, is mom to a little boy who will turn 2 soon. She has juggled a lot in her life: motherhood, school, basketball. She doesn't get rattled.
"I saw Teaira set a good screen, and I knew I was wide open, and I had to take a shot," Johnson said. "I didn't feel nervous; I'm just like a nonchalant person. I was confident."
Although when she was told that Lakers legend Kobe Bryant was in the crowd at Nationwide Arena, Johnson got a little more excited.
"Oh, I'm happy that he saw my shot," she said, grinning. "I'd be really happy if he congratulated me on the shot and congratulated the team. It was a hard-fought battle out there. I couldn't be any prouder of my team."
Of course, it wasn't quite over yet. Louisville had a chance to win at the buzzer, but Hines-Allen's shot did not go in. And in overtime, the Bulldogs looked like they just had a little more left in the tank.
Vivians scored five points in the overtime before fouling out; she led the Bulldogs with 25 points. William, Danberry and McCowan combined for the other nine points, and the Bulldogs had fought their way back to the title game. Which, having lost that last year to South Carolina, was their goal all this season.
"Last year, we didn't finish it off how we were supposed to," McCowan said. "We know this year not to take a play off and not to take anything lightly."
McCowan definitely didn't do that Friday. She was on the floor for every minute.
"She's done it all year against the best teams in the country, the best coaches in the country," Vic Schaefer said. "She did it tonight on the best stage you can do it on."