DALLAS - Gabby Williams had watched what Morgan William and Mississippi State had done against Baylor on March 26 to get to its first NCAA Final Four, and the UConn women’s basketball team’s All-American forward was full of admiration the day after.
“It’s what March is about,” Williams said. “Teams are going to fight. Players are going to hit shots outside their comfort zone when it really matters. It goes to show it doesn’t matter what your seed or anything is, it all depends on how you perform that night.”
On Friday night, the Huskies’ junior saw it all happen again in front of her eyes and all that was left was to give props to the Bulldogs.
William’s pull-up jumper at the overtime buzzer gave Mississippi State a stunning 66-64 win over UConn, ending the Huskies’ four-year reign as national champion and their record 111-game winning streak.
“They played like it was their game to win,” Williams said. “They were aggressive and forced us to do what they wanted us to do and they disrupted our offense.
“This stings and will hurt for a long time. I’m really proud of what we did this year. I’m really proud of the guys that stepped up. We did a lot of incredible things this year. It sucks that we couldn’t cap it off. I don’t think that diminishes anything we’ve done.”
Because of what the Huskies did in a year that was supposed to be one to “get them,” Mississippi State’s win will go down as one of the great upsets in the 36-year history of the NCAA Tournament.
But maybe the real surprise was that after losing three All-Americans, the top three picks in the 2016 WNBA Draft, and with no returning first- or second-team all-conference players it didn’t happen sooner.
“You know how many times this could have happened and it didn’t happen?” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “The fact that it never happened, that doesn’t mean I went home thinking it’s never going to happen. I knew this was coming at some point. I’m just shocked that it took this long to get here.”
Auriemma put together the toughest non-league schedule in the country to test his new group. After pulling out a win in the opener at Florida State, the Huskies stunned Baylor at home and continued to win. They went on the road in December and beat Notre Dame and Maryland.
They broke their own NCAA record with their 91st straight win at SMU on Jan. 14 and made it 100 consecutive wins by beating eventual national champion South Carolina at Gampel Pavilion on Feb. 13.
After sweeping through their American Athletic Conference schedule with only one test (at Tulane on Feb. 18), by March they were favored to make it an unprecedented five straight national championships.
Their run through the Bridgeport Regional changed no one’s perspective. But the Bulldogs stunned the Huskies by taking a 16-point first-half lead. And while UConn did edge in front in the second half, Mississippi State never flinched.
The Huskies did. With the score tied and the chance for the last shot of overtime, Saniya Chong attacked the basket and lost the ball out of bounds with 12.8 seconds to go. William took control and her shot jump over Williams’ hand found nothing but net.
In an instant, it was over.
“I would say there was a little disbelief,” UConn All-American guard Katie Lou Samuelson said. “It didn’t really hit me until we got closer to the locker room. When she hit that shot, it was kind of weird. I didn’t really know how to act or what to do. Once we were walking over here that is when it hits you, and it hurts.
“We did have a great season, and I’m really proud of this team. We did a lot of things that a lot of people didn’t think we could. We worked really hard. This season was extremely hard. I think all of us really wanted it to end on a better note, but you can’t forget about what we did accomplish.”
The final record is 36-1 with the AAC regular season and tournament titles, and a record 10th consecutive Final Four berth.
Three players - Williams, Samuelson, and forward Napheesa Collier - went from not making any of the three all-AAC teams in 2016 to consensus All-Americans. Guard Kia Nurse was an honorable mention All-American by the Associated Press as she and Williams emerged as team leaders. Chong, who was no factor for three postseasons, set a school record for assist-to-turnover ratio as a senior.
Their championship reign ended but the stage is set to start another one.
“Coach said it sucks to be in this position, and we’re going to think about it for a couple of days,” Collier said. “But he was proud of what we’ve done this year, and we should be proud even though we can’t really see it right now. We did have a good year, and we can’t let this keep us down for too long. We’ll let it build for next year and help us in the future.
“No one wants to end this way but you have to let it motivate you for next year.”
UConn loses Chong and classmate Tierney Lawlor, who were in Storrs for 152 wins - a NCAA record for a four-year span. Both will receive their bachelor’s degrees in May, and Chong is hopeful that her strong finish will get her a shot with a WNBA team.
The Huskies will return their three All-Americans and Nurse, and welcome transfers Azura Stevens and Batouly Camara as well as one of the nation’s top recruiting classes.
Williams’ development from someone with great athletic ability to an All-American player was an example of hard work paying off. She finished in the AAC’s top 10 in rebounds, assists, steals, blocked shots, and field-goal percentage and won league and national honors as the Defensive Player of the Year. ESPN analyst Jay Bilas called her the “most complete player in the game.” All that’s left is for her to stretch her shooting range out past the 3-point line to make her an impossible matchup.
Nurse was the AAC Preseason Player of the Year but struggled with the expectations of being the top returnee on a team without the 2016 Big Three. But as Williams and the sophomores emerged, Nurse found her comfort zone and while she remained willing to stay in the background, she had stretches where she was UConn’s best player. She set a NCAA Tournament record for 3-point baskets. Whether she has to play more point guard next year than before remains to be seen but the Huskies will be in solid hands.
Natalie Butler had some good moments, particularly in a Dec. 4 win over Texas, but never gave the Huskies the inside presence they could have used. That left Williams and Collier having to face much taller players in the post and it was an issue against 6-foot-7 Mississippi State center Teaira McCowan. With Stevens and Camara coming in, Butler will have to development her niche early or it will be too late.
Collier’s season was simply remarkable, particularly on the offensive end as she led the AAC in points and field-goal percentage. While she shared the league’s Player of the Year award with Samuelson, that she was beaten out by South Florida junior Maria Jespersen for the Most Improved Player honor is an embarrassment for AAC coaches. Collier makes things that are hard look easy. Getting stronger will help and while she did top the league in blocked shots the next jump in her game will be on the defensive end.
Samuelson expanded her game to help her become an All-American. After taking 66.4 percent of her shots from 3-point land as a freshman, that number dropped this season to 53.1 percent and she also took three times as many free throws than a year ago. As she gets stronger, she’ll move even better without the ball and at her height could give UConn more inside than she has in the past. She and Collier were the highest-scoring duo in UConn history this year. But she knows there’s more she can add.
Stevens and Camara spent the year sitting out due to NCAA transfer rules and earned the respect of their teammates for their work ethic. Auriemma believes that Stevens, who spent her first two years at Duke, will be a Player of the Year candidate next season. At 6-foot-6, she can go inside and outside and is a proven scorer and rebounder. Camara will give the Huskies a presence on the boards and hopes to continue her progress to getting a consistent jump shot. They certainly will fill two needs that UConn has.
Crystal Dangerfield had an up-and-down freshman year, with the high coming in the Nov. 17 win over Baylor. There’s no doubting her talent but Auriemma was not always happy with her work ethic. The Huskies would love to see the kind of jump with Dangerfield that Samuelson and Collier made coming into their sophomore year.
Molly Bent started the season in the rotation and saw key minutes in the opening games with Florida State and Baylor. But her minutes decreased as the season went on. For Bent and classmate Kyla Irwin, it will be about earning the trust of Auriemma and their teammates as they seek more playing time next year.
High school Player of the Year Megan Walker leads the Class of 2021 that will also include wing Lexi Gordon and guards Andra Espinoza-Hunter and Mikayla Coombs.
The Huskies will play another difficult non-league schedule, with 11 of their 13 games against teams that reached the 2017 NCAA Tournament. While Auriemma hopes the AAC will improve, it’s likely his team will continue its dominance there.
The 2018 Final Four is set for Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
“We did a lot to put ourselves into position to be successful,” Samuelson said. “It didn’t happen so we’ll all remember this when we work this offseason to figure out stuff we can improve upon. In the future we will always remember we want to be back here.”