South Carolina finally wins its first NCAA championship

DALLAS -- It turns out there was a team here that Mississippi State couldn't beat.

Not in January in the regular season. Not in March in the SEC tournament. Not in any of the 10 most recent meetings prior to Sunday. And not in the national championship game, either.

It doesn't seem that South Carolina has much left to prove on that count. Nor on this court.

Connecticut was the team no one else could beat. South Carolina was the team Mississippi State couldn't solve. And so women's college basketball has a new first-time champion after South Carolina's 67-55 win.

And while there is room to wonder if this was an opportunity Mississippi State lost less than 48 hours earlier, when it expended so much in an epic overtime win against the four-time defending champion, it is a title that South Carolina earned over 40 minutes, a season and years.

"You have to have patience, you have to persevere, stay with it," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. "If something is a goal of yours to accomplish, you don't give up on it. I never gave up on winning a national championship, no matter how hard it was, no matter what it looked like."

So the Gamecocks won the same way they reached a game like this in the first place. They surrounded a program-changing talent in A'ja Wilson, the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player after totaling 23 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks, with a supporting cast worthy of her.

Midway through the fourth quarter, when at least the stray possibility of a rally lingered in the American Airlines Center, Mississippi State set up to in-bound the basketball underneath the basket on the offensive end. In a voice the crowd in the uppermost seats could have heard, South Carolina assistant coach Fred Chmiel bellowed from the other end of the court at Allisha Gray. The coach responsible in this instance for the scouting report, he recognized the play about to be run and warned Gray at volume to look out for a back screen.

Gray lost her mark on a back screen. An open layup awaited Mississippi State's Ketara Chapel.

Well, it was open until Wilson swooped in from the other side of the lane to swat away the shot. Less than a minute later, she seized the ball in the paint at the other end and scored to extend the lead to an even more comfortable margin. There would be no Mississippi State miracle.

All the preparation in the world is wonderful, and Staley and a veteran staff are extremely good at what they do. None of it, not even knowing the play coming, is as important as talent.

"She makes plays on both ends," Chmiel said of Wilson, chuckling at the memory of the sequence. "It's intuitive, you don't have to tell her what to do -- every once and a while you've got to tell her, 'Hey, don't get in foul trouble, because we need you on the floor.' But she does stuff you don't teach. Her timing on blocked shots is incredible. Her athleticism is incredible."

The guy who was still in the building Sunday to be recognized along with the U.S. Olympic team he coached knows that well. Geno Auriemma says it all the time, never more famously than in explaining one season's success by noting he had Diana Taurasi and other teams did not.

South Carolina in some ways won Sunday's game when Wilson showed up on campus in 2014 as a freshman. That was the moment Staley's program became one that could aspire to being the best -- not just to getting better. Sunday was South Carolina's 40th game against a ranked opponent since Wilson arrived. It is 34-6 in those games. It was 16-39 in such games under Staley, who had to rebuild a program almost from scratch, before Wilson arrived.

A fifth-year senior and the only South Carolina player present at the Final Four who experienced life without Wilson, Tiffany Davis remembered being at a stop light driving home from class the day Wilson committed to stay in her home state. Davis and her teammates were as in the dark about the phenom's final decision as anyone else, but while waiting (safely stopped, mind you) for the light to turn green, she saw a video pop up on her phone with Wilson's announcement.

"The first thing was like, 'Oh my gosh,'" Davis recalled, voice rising even at the memory. "We knew she was a great player. And she's grown so much. But it was just the fact that Coach Staley got a hometown native to stay and show that she believed in us and she believed in Coach Staley. Her coming here, the program has changed a lot. She brings a lot to the table."

But she needs help, too. And South Carolina, which lost All-American Tiffany Mitchell after last season and Alaina Coates to injury midway through this season, would have been in trouble this year without Gray and Kaela Davis. Standouts in their first two college seasons at North Carolina and Georgia Tech, respectively, they transferred to South Carolina and sat out last season as a result. In each case, the chance to win a title -- a chance possible because of Wilson -- played no small role in making South Carolina each player's landing spot.

"To see the success of the program, I knew coming here I'd be capable of playing for a national championship," Gray said.

But that meant the starting lineup that took the court Sunday included two transfers who played their first game for the team just five months ago and a freshman point guard. The two subs used for more than spot duty were a freshman and a sophomore. It would be difficult to find a champion with less experience playing together, at the very least since Maryland in 2006.

And that only grew more difficult without Coates, the South Carolinian who chose the home school before even Wilson did the same.

"I think it took a lot of time and a lot of trust," Wilson said. "This team really built a lot of trust off the court, which made us kind of more comfortable on the court with each other. ... I think off the court really helped us translate our game on the court when it comes to playing. When you're playing with a team, you really have to trust each other. When times are going bad with me, I can get frustrated with myself. At the same time, I trust the fact that my teammates are going to knock down shots and attack the basket and bring the energy."

Wilson said that didn't happen, in full, until after the winter holidays this year, the time away from each other cementing in their minds how much they enjoyed each other.

The night before the game, with the stress of the moment in danger of dragging her into bad mental place, Wilson said the easygoing Gray hugged her and told her, essentially, to relax.

All of which brings us back to how the Gamecocks got the best of Sunday's 40 minutes against the Bulldogs. Mississippi State jumped out to a 7-1 lead in the opening minutes, all of those comparisons to the United States men's hockey team in 1980 looking well crafted.

The Bulldogs led for all but the final 24 seconds of the quarter. They would never lead again.

Gray drove hard and hit difficult shots, contorting her body to find a shooting angle in traffic, Wilson got the best of 6-foot-7 Teaira McCowan inside, and Kaela Davis attacked off the dribble instead of settling for 3-pointers. On both ends of the court, South Carolina pushed Mississippi State to see how much was left in the tank. They did so as a collective group but with the skill of remarkable individual talents.

"We knew we had to get the ball in the middle third of the floor and attack downhill," Chmiel said. "That way they can't tighten up their defense. If you get the ball on the sides of the floor, if you get to the sideline, they really tighten it up and choke you off. So you have to stay in the middle third, get downhill and attack them, put them back on their heels."

It was the same on defense. Bianca Cuevas-Moore hounded tournament sensation Morgan William, who looked spent, arms raised above her head during breaks in play like a runner trying to fend off fatigue. In one sequence, Victoria Vivians tried to take a step-back 3-pointer, only to find Kaela Davis beat her to the space needed. All Vivians could do was land and travel.

Mississippi State found enough to make one run, cutting the deficit to as few as four points, once in the third quarter and again in the fourth. The first time, Wilson and Kaela Davis quickly doubled the lead. The second time, Wilson and Gray did the same.

"It's a long hard grind of a year, of a season," Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said. "We got in so late Friday night [after the semifinal win]. We've been trying to almost play catch-up ever since. I thought we had a couple of kids today that just didn't have quite the energy level that we needed."

Yet Schaefer credited South Carolina. The Gamecocks just played better on the day, he said.

As they had the first two times these teams met.

That seems like a fair way to crown a champion.