Patrick Magee

Mississippi State women set new standard in Starkville

Mississippi State forward Breanna Richardson (3) celebrates her made shot and foul with center Chinwe Okorie (45) in Dallas on Friday.
Mississippi State forward Breanna Richardson (3) celebrates her made shot and foul with center Chinwe Okorie (45) in Dallas on Friday. Associated Press

If you were among the modest crowd of 1,724 at the Coast Coliseum in Biloxi on Nov. 16, you were witness to a team destined to make history.

It was a ho-hum affair for the No. 10 Mississippi State women’s basketball team that night as it cruised to a 66-49 victory over Tulane.

MSU climbed as high as No. 2 in the rankings in February, but even then few gave the Lady Bulldogs a chance at winning a national title. There was UConn and then there was everybody else.

After UConn beat MSU 98-38 in the Sweet 16 last year, even Mississippi State fans willingly admitted that the odds of getting past the Lady Huskies were extremely slim. The No. 60 was posted inside the MSU women’s locker room as a reminder of just how badly it went on March 26, 2016, in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

This year’s UConn squad had a mostly revamped roster, but the Lady Huskies were crushing the competition again this season. The gap between UConn and the other contenders appeared to be insurmountable.

That was the case until Friday night in Dallas.

Morgan William’s 15-foot jumper as time expired in overtime Friday night ended a record run of 111 consecutive wins for UConn. The Lady Bulldogs celebrated a 66-64 victory and a spot in Sunday’s 5 p.m. national title game against SEC rival South Carolina.

History made

An interesting side note to all this is that one of only two teams to truly threaten UConn during the regular season was Tulane, the same squad that MSU (34-4) thumped in Biloxi in November.

UConn struggled to get past Tulane 63-60 on Feb. 18 in New Orleans for the program’s 101st consecutive win. Florida State also put a scare into UConn, 78-76, in the season opener.

All the other games seemed to come easy to UConn, beating teams by an average of 32.2 points a game.

MSU managed to get the win with strong defense and clutch shots. While Victoria Vivians and William were masterful in the MSU backcourt, 6-foot-7 sophomore Teaira McCowan was the equalizer. As long as she was protecting the rim, nothing came easy for UConn.

MSU has lost twice to South Carolina (32-4) this season, 64-61, in Columbia on Jan. 23 and 59-49 in the SEC title game.

Headed into Sunday’s game, you get the feeling that the national title game could be decided on a coin’s toss.

When you consider that two former Coast standouts, West Harrison’s Ameshya Williams and Harrison Central’s Jazzmun Holmes mostly watched from the bench Friday night, that tells you just how strong this MSU team is. Holmes and Williams are two of the best high school players to ever come off the Coast and they’ll have to wait their turn in the lineup.

Holmes only played 1 minute during Friday’s game.

All eyes on MSU

Friday night’s MSU-UConn contest drew an impressive TV rating of 1.9 and was streamed online by a record total of 233,000 viewers.

Folks from around the nation got to watch as MSU delivered on the big stage and the school’s most popular former student-athlete, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, cheered on from inside the American Airlines Center.

It’s been a good five-year run for MSU athletics. The baseball team reached the College World Series finals in 2013 and the 2014 Prescott-led football squad earned an Orange Bowl bid.

The high water mark for MSU athletics came in 1996 when the men’s basketball team reached the Final Four, but you can make a strong argument that the Lady Bulldogs set a new standard Friday night.

On Sunday, they can earn MSU’s first team national title.

Game plan

Who: Mississippi State women vs. South Carolina

When: 5 p.m., Sunday

Where: Dallas, Texas