Mississippi State Beats Connecticut: An Opportunity For Women’s Basketball

DALLAS—Shortly after midnight Saturday morning, the Cinderella that is Mississippi State very much still a part of the dance, USA Basketball Chairman Martin Dempsey did not hesitate when asked what he thought of the 66-64 win the Bulldogs managed over Connecticut.

“I think it’s great for women’s basketball,” Dempsey said.

It’s an inarguable point, particularly in the short-term. No game in the history of women’s basketball has captured the popular imagination quite like this one. What many viewed as a purely mechanical exercise—Connecticut, winners of 111 straight, their most-heralded potential rivals already aced out of the field, and 20-point favorites in a Final Four game—turned into a performance by elegantly compact Morgan William, the seemingly endless reach of Teaira McCowan and rise of recently benched scorer Victoria Vivians that no one who watched will forget.

The arc of Mississippi State is more cinematic than sporting, and no one who saw it in full could have predicted, or even hoped, it would reach the apex it did Friday night in Dallas.

Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer, who has done it all in women’s basketball—coaching tiny Sam Houston State on a team budget that’s a rounding error for an elite Division I program, rounding a Texas A&M defense into championship form as an assistant, and now adding a narrator’s southern drawl to the greatest women’s basketball story ever told—chided us in the media, gently but firmly, for counting his team out.

Mar 31, 2017; Dallas, TX, USA; Mississippi State Lady Bulldogs head coach Vic Schaefer hugs Connecticut Huskies head coach Geno Auriemma after the game in the semifinals of the women’s Final Four at American Airlines Center. The Mississippi State Lady Bulldogs defeated the Connecticut Huskies in overtime 66-64. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

“We believed in our locker room it could be done. A year ago, I’m showing the Miracle, hoping for it. This year I wasn’t showing the Miracle. We weren’t watching any movies. I wasn’t talking about the Philistine slaying the giant, although it was in the back of my mind.”

How could you script it? The shortest person on the court, in William, ending the longest streak in NCAA basketball history? William, who lost her father three years ago, dedicating the tournament to him, then going out and beating Baylor with a 41-point performance, following that by lofting a game-winning shot over the outstretched hand of Gabby Williams, six inches on William standing, and whose jumps seem to reach higher and last longer than anyone who’s come before her in the women’s game.

William corrected a reporter who put Kia Nurse on her in that final moment. She had to. Without documentation, who would believe it?

To watch Geno Auriemma and the Huskies in the closing minutes of this one was to see a man secure in the knowledge that whatever happened Friday night, the legacy of both he and his team were secure.

Repeatedly, both as the Bulldogs built that 29-13 lead that William and Vivians said later changed the psychology of the Connecticut runs that came, that everyone in the building knew would come, Auriemma stayed calm, the zen figure among a group panicked by the unfamiliar. “It’s fine, it’s fine” I saw him say to his longtime assistant, Chris Dailey. His team surrounded him in huddles, and he didn’t raise his voice, sketching out the plays on his white board, while at the other end of the floor, the Bulldogs virtually jumped up and down in time with Schaefer’s excited gesticulations as he did the same thing.

Mar 31, 2017; Dallas, TX, USA; Connecticut Huskies head coach Geno Auriemma points the third quarter against the Mississippi State Lady Bulldogs in the semifinals of the women’s Final Four at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Standing in front of the Connecticut locker room, Auriemma found his inner philosopher.

“Part of me is disappointed for them,” he said, giving a group of us more, understanding that this is part of the mission of growing the game of women’s basketball no more or less than when he stays long after home games to greet fans, even reveal raffle winners. He never acts like an 11-time champion, which is why he’s won so much. He smiled. “How many national championships is one person entitled to?”

It was the classy response, but it wasn’t put on. Auriemma is the rare competitor who somehow managed to find that emotional headspace in the moment—and as surely as Schaefer and his group spent a year preparing to avenge the 60-point loss to the Huskies last March, Auriemma spent the season telling reporters he expected his team to lose, that the general perception Connecticut was above a game with more elite talent at more schools than ever before simply wouldn’t bear out.

All of which is why, for the game of women’s basketball, that Mississippi State victory is, as Dempsey said, great for the game. So, too, is Connecticut, their sustained excellence, redefining what is possible. It is no accident that the greatest boom period in men’s basketball history followed John Wooden’s reign at UCLA, a run that came about 35 years after the NCAA Tournament debuted in 1939, and it is reasonable to expect the same for the women, here at the 35-year mark of the NCAA Tournament for them.

But here’s the secret anyone who follows the sport would have been happy (or not so happy, with a bit of an edge in our voice, tired of saying it) to tell you: women’s basketball is already great. The women who play it, the coaches who make them better, games and stories and moments and shots that thrill and delight us all—they have always been here. This game, and the people who play it, provide the highest drama to all.

The gap in public perception isn’t one of talent, or drama, or competitive balance. It is the reality that women have been pushing against for as long as there have been men to set the artificial ceilings.

Asked why there aren’t more women coaching in Division I, South Carolina coach Dawn Staley used one word: Opportunity.

Asked why women hadn’t yet coached in the NBA, Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer used one word: Opportunity.

Asked what she saw in the moments after tiny Morgan William lofted a shot with just enough arc to travel over the implausibly long Gabby Williams, William replied with a single word: Opportunity.

Mar 31, 2017; Dallas, TX, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs teammates hug after an overtime victory against the Connecticut Huskies in the semifinals of the women’s Final Four at American Airlines Center. The Bulldogs beat the Huskies 66-64 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

And this is why we’re here. Because the game is already great. It is our opportunity to cover it the way it deserves to be covered. Players can only capture the national imagination if the national spotlight is turned upon them. That amorphous difficulty so many fans remark upon as if it’s some limitation of the women’s game—loving what they see, but not following regularly—has everything to do with having few places to engage with women’s basketball every single day, in ways emotional and intellectual, delving deep into stats, telling the stories of the wonderful players on the court. A self-reinforced truth from so much of the media will never end unless we change it ourselves. One percent of the attention going to the game for every 99 percent to the men, and is it any wonder that fans who aren’t expressly seeking out that coverage are going to reach the conclusion that they ought to pay attention to women’s basketball only in rare circumstances? It isn’t visceral. It’s math.

So absolutely, Martin Dempsey is right. Social media exploded Friday night, and the reason was a women’s basketball game that no one will ever forget, though the smart money is that years from now, people will think they are recalling it, but instead are thinking about the movie they’ll make about Morgan William and her unlikely team now just a win away from a championship trophy already boxed and addressed to Storrs.

Now Vic Schaefer’s women get to play the part of 1985 Villanova, of the U.S. Hockey team from Miracle. It’s a new role for women, only made possible by the rise of Connecticut.

“I thought about that game,” Schaefer told me quietly after his press conference, speaking of Villanova over Georgetown. “I remember it well. That was a special game, and so was this one. It’ll go down in history, and I want my kids to embrace that. And right now, we have a chance to go do something even bigger.”

Mar 31, 2017; Dallas, TX, USA; Mississippi State Lady Bulldogs players celebrate after defeating the Connecticut Huskies in the semifinals of the women’s Final Four at American Airlines Center. The Mississippi State Lady Bulldogs defeated the Connecticut Huskies in overtime 66-64. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

He was talking about the championship Sunday night against South Carolina, but he could have been speaking for the sport as a whole, for all the women who play this great game, fighting against prejudice and a virtual media blackout in many places, and an equally pernicious attitude in many places it is covered—separate but unequal, relegated to moments men’s sports allow.

Into those headwinds, moments like William’s thrilling shot bringing a sellout crowd in Dallas to its feet, or long-term appreciation of greatness like the crowds Connecticut generates everywhere the Huskies travel aren’t just signs of growth—they are reminders that given the opportunity, America will not only pay attention to women’s basketball, they’ll be riveted.

A golden era has descended on the game, from a collegiate tournament where so many excel and yes, even Connecticut can be defeated, to a professional league that just concluded its 20th season with the best WNBA Finals anybody can remember.

“The bottom line is they’re great kids,” Schaefer said of his team, but could have been talking about the thousands of players all over the country, those who came too early to be properly appreciated in this game decades ago, and the players of tomorrow, just starting to hone their skills now, playing at being Morgan William in front of hoops all over America. “They’re committed. They want to win. They pay a price every day. That’s the piece that if you’re on the outside looking in, you just don’t know that about our kids. That’s what makes ’em the warriors that they are. It allows them to be successful.”

Let’s find out together. All they need is our attention. And that’s why we’re here. To put a spotlight on them. To make the megaphone bigger that Morgan William shouts into every time she arcs a shot high over an opposing defender, not just to slay mighty Connecticut at the Final Four.

We’re here not because we should be, though we should. We’re here because it’s fun: because we don’t want you to miss a moment.

Join us, won’t you?