Emotional Morgan William scores 41 to lead Mississippi State to first Final Four

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Almost three years to the day after her father died at age 44, Morgan William scored a career-high 41 points Sunday in the Oklahoma City Regional final to lead No. 2 seed Mississippi State to an upset of No. 1 seed Baylor in overtime.

William's towering performance in the 94-85 win helped the Bulldogs secure their first trip to the Women's Final Four. As Baylor coach Kim Mulkey put it, "Their one kid kicked our rear."

Afterward, William's thoughts were with the man she said made her who she is.

From the time she was about 2 years old, William knew Donnie Rory as her daddy. He was her stepfather, technically, but he was the one who helped raise her, played sports with her, and encouraged her to believe in herself as a basketball player who is generously listed at 5-foot-5.

After Sunday's win, it was difficult for William, caught up in the emotion of the moment, to talk in a postgame interview conducted on court at Chesapeake Energy Arena. But later, in the Mississippi State locker room, she could smile a little about paying tribute to Rory.

A former Samford football player, Rory died on March 25, 2014, when William was a senior in high school in Birmingham, Alabama.

"He saw me win a state championship, but he didn't see me go to prom or graduate," William said. "I remember him coming home from a game, and he had complained about his chest. But the next day, he went to work. And then had a heart attack and passed.

"It was very tough. I remember a few days later, I tried to go to the gym, and I just couldn't do it. We had been working out since I was a kid. People had always thought I was too small -- 'She won't go far, she'll probably play [Division II]' -- but he believed. We'd get in the gym at 5 a.m., and he pushed me past what I thought was my limit."

William committed to Mississippi State at the start of her senior year, so Rory knew that's where she would be playing collegiately. She said it took about a month after he died for her to be able to go work out again, but his spirit is still motivating her.

"We used to talk about stuff like this: He thought when I got to the SEC, I'd be the best point guard," she said. "I know he's not here, but he's upstairs watching me."

William's mother, Monica Rory, attended Sunday's game.

William, a junior, came into Sunday's game averaging 10.1 points per game this season, and 9.6 points in her college career. Her previous career high was 29 points against Arkansas State in November 2014, early in her freshman season. Her season high for 2016-17 was 24 at Iowa State on Dec. 3.

Long before Sunday's game began, William was on court shooting, trying to get a rhythm. She had scored just six points in the Bulldogs' NCAA tournament opener against Troy, was scoreless in their win over DePaul, and had 5 points in their regional semifinal victory against Washington. She was a combined of 4-of-16 from the floor in those three victories.

"I came out here early because I had some issues the last couple of games," William said, but added that once Sunday's game began, "I was feeling it."

William went 13-of-22 from the floor -- including 6-of-8 from 3-point range -- and 9-of-10 from the free throw line. She also had seven assists -- becoming Mississippi State's career assist leader in the process -- and no turnovers. Meanwhile, she helped force Baylor into 17 turnovers, and Mississippi State scored 20 points off those.

In short, it was about as great a performance as you could ask of a college point guard playing in the biggest game thus far in her life. William knows she is an inspiration to shorter players; she hears that all the time from kids. But even adults were gushing over her Sunday.

After Mississippi State's news conference, William walked back to the locker room and received congratulations from arena personnel, including one usher who said, "That was so awesome! And I think you're even smaller than me!"