Suddenly, they became streak-busters.
Out of nowhere, they became unlikely stars to snap UConn’s spell and entrance so many with one of the largest upsets in recent memory.
Believe it, the Mississippi State Bulldogs did women’s college basketball a favor.
One week later, it’s still hard to believe. Mighty UConn — a Goliath who ground so many challengers into dust during a surreal 111-game winning streak — was dumped in Dallas during the Final Four. Mississippi State guaranteed a new champion would be crowned after Morgan William’s magical shot served as an earthquake that rocked her sport.
And thank goodness for that.
“I do think Mississippi State’s win is good for a lot of reasons. I think it sends a message to programs that are building that they may not be as far away as it seems at times,” said Andy Landers, who coached Georgia from 1979-2015 and serves as a women’s college basketball analyst for SEC Network. “And I think the other thing it does is it sends a signal to any team, really, that is in that underdog position where you’re not supposed to win that (losing) is not a certainty.
“For all those people who coach or those players who play that think that it’s far-fetched to beat a UConn, there it is.”
It happened, all right. With all due respect to title holder South Carolina, which beat Mississippi State on Sunday, the Bulldogs’ thrilling victory over the Huskies will be the NCAA Tournament’s lasting moment. The Gamecocks can have their trophy. South Carolina coach Dawn Staley can drape the championship net around her neck until the end of time.
But women’s college basketball needed a fresh face, a fresh voice and fresh storylines in the No. 1 slot. Mississippi State made the change possible. The Bulldogs’ heavy lifting should never be forgotten.
“It is a good thing for the sport to have this competition, but I felt very bad for (UConn coach) Geno (Auriemma), because this was probably Geno’s best all-around coaching job,” said Debbie Ryan, who was Virginia’s coach from 1977-2011. “It was his best. He did not have anywhere near what he had in the past, in terms of talent. Yet he continued to do what he does. And if not for one bad night, who knows? But this will be good for the game, to create the competition.”
It had been so long, with so many failed uprisings, since UConn began its run of four consecutive national titles in 2013. Louisville, Syracuse and Notre Dame (twice) were swept away as more nets were snipped following conquest after conquest by Auriemma’s army.
After a while, the flow of Huskies victories became expected, with each new triumph an accepted part of life like a heartbeat or the Mississippi River’s crawl through the South.
Outside Starkville, who expected the UConn’s dominance to stop this year?
The Huskies won each of their first four NCAA Tournament games by at least 15 points. Yes, they were threatened multiple times this season. They only beat Florida State by two, Tulane by three and Maryland by six. UConn was 36-0 before the Final Four, but the Huskies showed more teeth in the past.
Still, Mississippi State was a surprise Robin Hood.
The Bulldogs had two Sweet 16 appearances before this season, in 2010 and 2016. They never reached the Elite Eight before beating Washington on March 24. They never earned the chance to experience a Final Four before topping Baylor on March 26.
And oh, yeah, UConn blasted them by 60 points in the Sweet 16 last year.
“We knew it could happen,” Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer told reporters after the Final Four win. “You see, you have to be careful when you start talking about people that you really don’t know about. If all you’re doing is evaluating what you see on TV, and you don’t really know what’s inside somebody’s breastplate, you better be careful about evaluating them. That’s what these kids have. They have tremendous heart. They also have a little pride.”
That pride was on display for the world to witness last Friday in a hair-raiser that lifted Mississippi State’s profile forever.
Had UConn advanced past the Final Four and claimed another national title two days later, a familiar beat would have continued. Had UConn added another trophy and vanquished more foes during a historic march, the Bulldogs’ effort would have been forgotten. The status quo would have survived.
Yet Mississippi State gave its sport new life, new belief and a new start that was oh, so needed.
That accomplishment is larger than any trophy case can hold.