DALLAS — The No. 1 seed South Carolina Gamecocks are the new queens of NCAA basketball following their 67-55 victory over the No. 2 Mississippi State Bulldogs in front of a sell-out crowd in the America Airlines Center. Junior A’ja Wilson was named the Final Four Most Outstanding Player after dominating the Bulldogs on offense with a game-high 23 points and 10 rebounds, and on defense with a game-high four blocked shots. With the victory, the Gamecocks captured their first championship in women’s basketball, the schools fourth in all sports and their 11th straight victory over the Bulldogs.
“I just thought, you know, from an offensive standpoint we needed to attack the paint” winning head coach Dawn Staley said. “Yes, Mississippi State is a very good defensive team. They're also a team that fouls a lot. We wanted to make sure that we put 'em back on their heels, put them back in situations in which we were going to make the officials make a call, whether it was a charge, whether it was a block, whether it was a reach-in.”
Wilson and All-tournament team member junior Allisha Gray shined throughout the tournament and in the finals, combining for 41 points and 20 rebounds while only committing one turnover. The duo was able to silence the two bigs for Mississippi State, sophomore Teaira McCowan and Chinwe Okorie, who were held to nine points and attempted seven shots.
“I mean, I just kind of play my game and just stick within myself, play my role, whether it's being dominant, being a good teammate” Wilson said about her performance. “I try to stay within my role and helping out my teammate as much as I can.”
For Mississippi State, their point guard duo and All-tournament team selections junior Victoria Vivians and junior Morgan William were contained throughout the night, as Vivians had 12 points on 4-16 shooting and William had eight points on 2-6 shooting in only 23 minutes of play. Neither player nor the Bulldogs were able to hit from deep, shooting 2-12 from behind the arc, while the Gamecocks were 0-3 from behind the arc becoming the fifth team to win a National Championship game without making a 3-pointer.
The Gamecocks went down early in the first quarter following a 7-1 blistering shot by the Bulldogs, but South Carolina was able to hang in and find their grove. After the game was tied at 14 with 2:10 left in the first when Gray nailed a jumper, redshirt sophomore Doniyah Cliney hit two free throws giving the Gamecocks a lead they would never let go of.
Leading by four points headed into the second quarter, South Carolina started to distance themselves, holding Mississippi State scoreless for an extended four plus minutes to start the quarter and scoreless for four minutes in the middle of the quarter. At the end of the first half, Mississippi State only attempted 26 shots which were 12 less than their previous game against UConn.
“I thought they were really, really aggressive, did a really nice job attacking us. We had a hard time with them off the bounce…” Mississippi head coach Vic Schaefer said before going on to say, “but I don't think it would have mattered. I think South Carolina really played extremely well. Today just wasn't our best day.”
South Carolina also attempted 26 shots which was eight more first half attempts then the Huskies had as they also were able to utilize the free throw line, evident by going to the line nine more times in the first two quarters. Headed into the third period, South Carolina led 36-26 behind Wilson and Gray who each had 11 points, on 4-6 and 4-7 shooting, respectively.
The third quarter was where the Bulldogs attempted their comeback, as they were able to make five consecutive field goals, mounting a 9-0 run to get back within single digits. Mississippi State, following their big run, proceeded to not hit a field goal for several minutes at the end of the quarter. Wilson and Gray were too much pushing the lead to eight at the end of the third, as junior Kaela Davis hit a jumper at the same spot of the court William did the game before to end the third.
“A'ja is a great player. We've been dealing with her for three years. She's tough” Mississippi State senior guard Ketara Chapel said about Wilson. “We had a hard time guarding her tonight. I don't know. She's a really great player, so it's hard to try to match her intensity.”
In the fourth, Mississippi State cut the lead down to four midway through the final quarter but went cold once again, enduring a 1-7 shooting stretch and proceeding to watch South Carolina end the game on a 12-4 run. Wilson in the final quarter had eight points to end the Cinderella run of the Bulldogs and leading the Gamecocks into the record books and into women’s basketball glory.
Matt Kren is a staff writer for The Daily Campus, covering women’s basketball. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.