Why Mississippi State and South Carolina could each win it all in Dallas

Sunday night is now the championship game few thought would happen. Mississippi State's 66-64 overtime takedown of Connecticut and its 111-game winning streak and four straight national titles stunned the basketball world and set up an all-SEC showdown with South Carolina for the trophy (ESPN/WatchESPN, 6 p.m. ET).

Instead of a possible 12th championship for UConn, one team will be winning its first.

Even as a No. 1 seed, South Carolina's spot in Dallas had some doubts -- especially when senior center Alaina Coates, the program's all-time leading rebounder, played what turned out to be her final game of the season in the SEC tournament because of an ankle injury. Those doubts arose again Friday night, when the Gamecocks trailed Stanford by nine at halftime.

But South Carolina overcame both Coates' injury and the Cardinal with Friday's 62-53 win to set up a third game against Mississippi State this season.

The Gamecocks are 2-0 against the Bulldogs, winning 64-61 on Jan. 23 in Columbia, South Carolina, in a game that was key to the Gamecocks' winning the SEC regular-season crown, and 59-49 a month ago in the SEC tournament title game.

Now Mississippi State is hoping the third time is the charm and it wins in the most important of the three matchups.

How they reached the NCAA championship game

Mississippi State: Bulldogs' coach Vic Schaefer and his players might have been the only people in America Airlines Center on Friday night who truly believed Mississippi State could beat UConn. His confidence and a great game plan executed almost flawlessly guided the shocking upset. That and the moxie of point guard Morgan William, who wanted the game in her hands and delivered with her buzzer-beating 15-footer in overtime to win it.

The Bulldogs were in position for William to be the hero because they outworked the Huskies on the boards and to most loose balls, forced 17 UConn turnovers and shortened the game with long offensive possessions that limited the Huskies' opportunities to score.

South Carolina: The Gamecocks locked down the Cardinal in the second half, holding them to just 30.3 percent shooting, and outscored Stanford 42-24 after halftime. Coach Dawn Staley rebuilt the South Carolina program on a foundation of defense, and that is what has delivered her to the championship game for the first time.

Why they'll win the national title

Mississippi State: If momentum counts for anything, then the Bulldogs couldn't be in a better position. Perhaps no one other than UConn has ever had more in the history of the sport. Mississippi State just beat the unbeatable and now has consecutive overtime wins over No. 1 seeds.

The key will be the Mississippi State players remembering that there is another game to play, that beating UConn wasn't the national championship. It helps that the opponent is so familiar, and the Bulldogs will have a chip on their shoulders because of the two earlier losses to South Carolina. Schaefer has used that motivator throughout the tournament.

Execution down the stretch helped produce the Bulldogs' upset of UConn. But a failure to produce in the key moments of the fourth quarter against the Gamecocks cost Mississippi State in both of their previous games, especially in the SEC tournament loss in which the Bulldogs scored just four fourth-quarter points.

South Carolina: This is new territory for the Gamecocks, too, but the opponent is not. Those two early wins should supply South Carolina with plenty of confidence and even some peace of mind heading into the biggest game for any of the players or coaches.

The way William is playing could make an argument against that mindset, but in A'ja Wilson, South Carolina has the best player on the court -- and that can go a long way in games of this magnitude. She demonstrated that with her seven-point and defensively dominant performance in the fourth quarter of the SEC tournament championship game against the Bulldogs a month ago.

South Carolina also has more potential weapons with higher ceilings for a breakout game. Kaela Davis, Allisha Gray and Wilson give the Gamecocks three all-conference-level offensive players. It's been rare that all three are clicking in the same game, but it only takes that one night for it to happen to deliver a championship.

Three keys

1. A third Bulldog: Breanna Richardson (12 points) and Teaira McCowan (10 points) scored in double figures against UConn, which was more than the season averages for both. Mississippi State needs something like that again. At times this offense becomes too reliant on just William and Victoria Vivians. William was the only double-digit scorer in last month's loss to the Gamecocks. The 3-point shooting of Blair Schaefer was a key against DePaul and Washington earlier in the tournament.

2. Wilson's foul count: This was never an issue against Stanford, but it was in the regional final against Florida State and in the second round against Arizona State, two other teams with good size like Mississippi State. As an All-American, Wilson's importance is obvious, but it's multiplied with Coates out. Staley simply doesn't have the frontcourt depth to survive long stretches without Wilson playing aggressively, especially on the defensive end where she was extremely disruptive against the Cardinal on Friday night.

3. Kaela Davis: She was brilliant in the key moments down the stretch of the SEC tournament title game against the Bulldogs, with seven points in the final quarter and 23 total. In their first meeting she was virtually invisible, with four points on 1-of-9 shooting. The junior wing was just as bad against Stanford on Friday, hitting 2 of 15 shots for six points. If Wilson continues to be blanketed, South Carolina needs its second-leading scorer (13.0 PPG) to play a major role.

The names you know

Mississippi State: Morgan William. After her past two games, it's hard not to know Morgan William. Thanks to her game winner that toppled UConn, she will be tied to NCAA tournament history forever. But not only did she make that jumper, but she has also been running the Bulldogs in near flawless fashion. Her 41 points against Baylor were incredible, and the shot against the Huskies is an instant all-time moment. But perhaps even more remarkable is that in those games and 84 total minutes, William, who has the ball in her hand constantly, has turned it over only twice.

South Carolina: A'ja Wilson. Friday's win over Stanford was a struggle. The Cardinal boxed her in with double- and triple-teams, barely letting Wilson breathe. At times she was frustrated. But she persevered and found another way. She dominated the glass with 19 rebounds. Stanford guarded Wilson well, but she wouldn't allow herself to be taken out of the game entirely. Without her work on the boards South Carolina doesn't survive the first half enough to come back in the second. Wilson did much the same against Mississippi State in the SEC tournament championship game. Quiet for long stretches because the length of the Bulldogs made her life tougher, Wilson came alive late with some key late rebounds and four blocks to go with her 12 total points, proving that South Carolina was truly OK without Coates.

Game changers

Mississippi State: Teaira McCown/Chinwe Okorie. Their size together gives Schaefer 40 minutes of someone 6-5 or bigger on the floor at all times and allows him to play the hot hand. Each played effectively against UConn. If they can do that again on Sunday, Wilson will always have someone at least her size with whom to contend. That keeps her more honest on defense, slowing her help-side defense, where she typically gets many of her blocked shots.

South Carolina: Allisha Gray. With just 20 points at the half against Stanford, South Carolina desperately needed someone to step up in the final 20 minutes. Gray answered the call. She made her first five shots of the second half and scored 13 of her game-high 18 points after halftime. During the vital 13-0 third-quarter run that gave South Carolina the lead it never lost, Gray had four points, a key defensive rebound and a blocked shot. She remains the team's most confident 3-point shooter.


Mississippi State.