'The Way Last Year Ended' Fueling Unbeaten UConn, Miss. St. Women Toward History

Natalie Weiner@natalieweinerStaff WriterMarch 2, 2018

UConn's Katie Lou Samuelson and Mississippi State's Teaira McCowan
UConn's Katie Lou Samuelson and Mississippi State's Teaira McCowanB/R

In Starkville, Mississippi, it's called "the shot heard 'round the world."

Morgan William had the ball near half court with just under four seconds in a tied game. This wasn't any random late-season game, but Mississippi State's first-ever Final Four appearance, and across the court was a University of Connecticut women's basketball team looking for its 112th consecutive win. The Bulldogs were already part of that record, having lost to the Huskies by 60 points in the Sweet 16 the year prior.

"As soon as we found out who was in our bracket for the tournament, everyone was like, 'Oh, y'all are done,'" guard Blair Schaefer says now, sitting in the stands after a recent practice. "When we made it to the Final Four, they said, 'Well, you guys had a good run.'"

William, 5'5", dribbled into the fray and pulled up near the free-throw line, soaring what looked like at least a foot-and-a-half in the air. The ball fell through the hoop as the backboard turned red, and basketball history was made.

In Storrs, Connecticut, it's known as "the way last year ended." As in, "Especially the way last year ended, I'm just focusing on winning every single game," UConn's Katie Lou Samuelson told reporters surrounding her after a 26-point performance against No. 4 Louisville. "Whatever I need to do to do that, I'm going to do."

Though Mississippi State snapped UConn's record-setting streak and cemented its first-ever national championship berth, both teams returned from Dallas without cutting down a net (South Carolina won the final, 67-55). Neither has lost a game since.

They're far from the only teams poised to make a run in this year's NCAA tournament: Baylor has lost one game, while Louisville and Notre Dame have dropped just two each.

It's a competitive field, and yet the Mississippi/UConn narratives are irresistible: the potential rematch of an unprecedented dynasty stocked with top recruits versus the homespun crew of local talent that stunned them with a buzzer-beater. The parallel seasons of the lanky offensive powerhouse whose average margin of victory is 37.4 points versus the team that scrapped its way through one of the toughest conferences in women's basketball without missing a beat.

There are still many games to be played before UConn and Mississippi State know if they'll be facing off again, but their regular-season success already sets them apart, sort of. Of the 23 undefeated regular seasons in women's college basketball history, UConn owns nine. The players know, though, that the toughest battles are still in front of them. As Mississippi State's Schaefer puts it: "We understand that we have to maintain this level of intensity if we want to keep this going."

The UConn Huskies are on a 17-0 run, flexing for a sold-out house at Storrs' Gampel Pavilion. A crowd of 10,167 sits under 11 championship banners, complimentary white pom-poms in hand, as the pep band plays Chance the Rapper's "No Problem." Samuelson sprints down the court, lobs the ball over 6'2" Louisville senior Myisha Hines-Allen to projected top-five 2018 WNBA draft pick Gabby Williams, who tosses in an easy layup. Make that 19-0.

Alyssa and Brooke, nine-year-old twins who play basketball themselves, are cheering from the stands. Samuelson is Alyssa's favorite player because "she's a really good shooter, and she's really good at basketball in general," while Brooke loves watching sophomore guard Crystal Dangerfield because "she's fast and strong."

They've spent their whole lives watching UConn women's basketball; their dad, Tom, is an alum who befriended Rebecca Lobo and Pam Webber while managing the men's team. Brooke wants to grow up to play basketball for UConn (failing that, she'll settle for being the first woman to play football for Notre Dame). "Geno [Auriemma] tells them a play, and then they work and pass the ball until they find an open shot," she explains. "He's a good coach."

The Huskies eventually triumph over Louisville, 69-58, and Auriemma—owner of the highest winning percentage (.883) and architect of the most titled program in college basketball history—attempts to explain how. Specifically, he's trying to explain how good Samuelson, the 6'3" junior with the highest three-point percentage in Division I (49.3 percent) and a front-runner for this year's Naismith Trophy, is. "She just had this feeling that today was going to be a really good day for her," he says.

"She's always in that mood," Louisville star Asia Durr says while laughing when asked about Samuelson. Her coach, Jeff Walz, deadpans when asked about his strategy for defending her: "We wanted to see how many open shots we could give her, but unfortunately that didn't work."

Junior Katie Lou Samuelson leads the undefeated Huskies in scoring (18.3 points per game) and three-point shooting (49 percent) this season.
Junior Katie Lou Samuelson leads the undefeated Huskies in scoring (18.3 points per game) and three-point shooting (49 percent) this season.Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

Samuelson is far from the only player UConn opponents have to worry about: Five players average more than 10 points a game, and six shoot better than 50 percent. Juniors Napheesa Collier and 6'6" Duke transfer Azura Stevens, as well as WNBA-bound seniors Kia Nurse and Gabby Williams, round out the starting five.

"Gabby does things for us as a player that no one else in the country consistently does," Samuelson says later. "At 5'11", she's guarding both the best post players in the country and the best guards in the country. It's surprising that you have a player doing that kind of stuff, and people still overlook it."

In the Louisville game alone, Williams had 12 points, 15 rebounds and six assists—plus a leaping, midair steal that looked more like a Richard Sherman interception than a basketball play. She took it in for a layup, naturally. "She makes plays that are unlike anything a lot of people have ever seen," Auriemma adds.

For some fans, though, it can be hard to forget the mistakes—even when there are so few of them. "I remember Gabby Williams had the ball and shot it too early...they could have won," says Brooke, recalling one of the plays before The Way Last Year Ended. "Then the other team dribbled up the court and made the buzzer-beater." Alyssa is reminded of the tournament's unofficial title: "We were so mad!"

The doors to the Hump, as most call Mississippi State's Humphrey Coliseum, won't open until 5 p.m., but Diane Tomlinson, a 64-year-old Starkville native, got in line a little before 2. "They put on a better show than the Harlem Globetrotters!" she says around 3, by which point she's been joined by about 50 other fans. They're waiting by the shadier of the arena's two entrances, a welcome respite from the sunny, 80-degree weather.

Like most of the fans there, Diane hasn't been coming to women's basketball games for long—her first was in 2016, and she got "hooked," in her words. She's standing behind Roger, 62, who opted in about three years ago. This year, he's been to every game and is planning to attend the NCAA tournament.

"Before Coach [Vic] Schaefer, there were probably about 100 people in the arena," he says. The team is averaging more fans per game than it had over entire seasons a decade ago—113,814 fans attended home games this season, a team record (Starkville has around 25,000 residents).

Vic Schaefer was hired in 2012 to coach a team that had gone 14-16 the previous season, just before six of its seniors graduated. Two of the recruits he inherited weren't eligible. "They were short on talent and big on heart," he says now. They went 13-17, but Schaefer notes that "we beat No. 11 Georgia, and we weren't supposed to beat No. 11 Georgia."

With his own recruits, the team went 22-14 the next year. "We signed kids who weren't necessarily top-ranked but brought things that we were desperately missing here at Mississippi State: toughness and competitive spirit," he says. "Those are the kids that, four years later, took us to the national championship game."

Vic Schaefer @CoachVic_MSU

They were lining up at 10:30 this morning for our 1:00 o'clock tip. The BEST Fans in the country were loud and proud today. Thank you for supporting our program and loving our players. #Repin4OurState#Liveit https://t.co/ufZheefkYz

But it wasn't just that the team was playing better: Schaefer campaigned for fans and insisted that his team do the same. His first season, he went camper to camper at the Mississippi State tailgates, promoting the upcoming season and selling tickets. The team started a tradition: waiting on the court after every game to talk to fans. Take a sellout crowd, add an undefeated team and imagine what that means for the players.

"Teaira McCowan's just gone up and down the court at 6'7"—and probably dragged somebody else with her—and the game's over, but we're gonna stay out here and hug babies and kiss mamas and take pictures and sign autographs for the next hour because that's how long it takes," Schaefer says. "They understand that's what we do here at Mississippi State."

The approach worked, on the court and in the stands. In five years, Mississippi State has become a women's basketball powerhouse. "People are traveling to Vanderbilt and Georgia, planning their lives around women's basketball games," Schaefer adds. "You've gotta give our kids all the credit, because they're the ones that they're coming to see."

Now, his picture gets prime placement on the wall at a nearby barbeque spot, The Little Dooey (where Tim Tebow is pictured above the sweet tea). When men's basketball coach Ben Howland hands out free cheese fries at a local dive (a way to promote his team), he's confronted with tipsy students accidentally calling him Vic Schaefer.

Ask those same fans (and tipsy students) about their favorite players, and you'll probably hear the entire roster. Roger is a fan of junior Jordan Danberry: "I like her defense." Quincy, a 22-year-old engineering student, likes Morgan William, who has had to adjust to becoming a local celebrity since her franchise-changing shot. "People are like, 'Sorry to bother you'—which they're really not—but they always want a picture or autograph or something while I'm eating," William says. Still, she insists she's not "the biggest thing since sliced bread or anything like that."

There's Victoria Vivians, the Carthage, Mississippi, native who came to Starkville after seeing the ball she used to set the state's high school career scoring record (5,017 points) sent to the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. She's now averaging almost 20 points a game.

Vivians is heading to the WNBA but was already a top pick...for homecoming queen (her slogan was Queen of All Courts). Ask her about it and she'll roll her eyes, but she admits it was fun. Not long after she won, the team gave a free ticket to anyone who wore a tiara.

Or take Roshunda Johnson, who's been a vital deep threat and defender. Johnson found out she was five-and-a-half months pregnant not long after transferring from Oklahoma State. She continued to practice during her pregnancy, though the team wouldn't allow her to sit on the bench once she started showing. Today, she holds her two-year-old son Malaki on her hip while she signs autographs.

Since stunning UConn last season with her buzzer-beater in the Final Four, Morgan William has become a celebrity around Starkville, Mississippi.
Since stunning UConn last season with her buzzer-beater in the Final Four, Morgan William has become a celebrity around Starkville, Mississippi.Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

There's guard Blair Schaefer, the coach's daughter. "She does her job and gives everybody the chance to shoot," says Kyle, an 18-year-old Starkville High student waiting for the game to start. "She doesn't try to hold the ball." His assessment is almost identical to her father's. "I'm living the dream—she's not only playing for me, she's on the No. 2 team in the country," he says.

Both father and daughter insist things are strictly player-coach on the hardwood, though that doesn't necessarily translate off the court. "Sometimes when I come home he's like, 'So how was practice?' and I'm like, 'Dad, you were there,'" she says, smiling and shaking her head.

Blair, now a senior, began playing at Mississippi State during her dad's second year as a coach—practically a different universe from where the team is now. "When I started, everyone was like, 'Let's get to the NCAA tournament!'" she says. "Now it's like, we want to get back to the Final Four. Our ultimate goal is totally different."

As different and as dominant as UConn's Huskies and MSU's Bulldogs are, both teams feel like they're entering this postseason with something to prove.

Yes, even UConn—a program whose dynasty is only currently matched by the New England Patriots and Alabama football—feels like it's been a fight to get to this point. "This team has just gone through so much: from being underdogs coming into the season last year, then proving everybody wrong [by going undefeated], then proving everybody right [by losing in the Final Four] and then this year trying to win it back and kind of being back in the underdog role," Gabby Williams says.

That would seem to beg the question: Does she really think the No. 1 team in the country is an underdog? "The comeback kids, I guess."

"People get tired of hearing, reading and writing about UConn," says associate head coach Chris Dailey, who has been with the Huskies for over 33 years and whose induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame was announced during the Louisville game. "People are tired of us winning. More people were happy that we lost than that Mississippi State won last year, probably. Even the average fan was like, 'Oh, it's about time.'"

Breaking the streak, though, has turned out to be a blessing in disguise. "Last year, everyone always talked about the streak, every single game," Samuelson says. "This year, we feel like we've been able to do our own thing."

Dailey sees it as a necessary shift. "Last year's team had a very small role in creating that win streak, but they had the bulk of the attention on them because of it," she says. "I think this year's team feels like this record is what they have done and has nothing to do with what anyone's done in the past."

In Starkville, the players struggle more with the feeling that they're not being taken seriously. "They're still messing up our name!" says Vivians, alluding to how ESPN2 keeps referring to the Bulldogs as the Delta Devils (Mississippi Valley State's mascot) in chyrons. "I feel like that's disrespectful, especially since we've been here for three years now."

Blair Schaefer and her Mississippi State teammates still feel they have to fight for being respected as one of the top teams in the country despite not having lost all season.
Blair Schaefer and her Mississippi State teammates still feel they have to fight for being respected as one of the top teams in the country despite not having lost all season.Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press/Associated Press

"We keep trying to prove ourselves, and people continue to say it's just a fluke. That our 28 games are a fluke," adds Blair Schaefer, whose team now has 30 wins. "We're like, 'Really?'"

Her father agrees. "I do feel like we're underrated," Coach Schaefer says. "I've said it since we were 20-0: This is not normal. It's so not normal to be where we are today, and to Connecticut's credit, they've made it look easy. This team already had the pressure of the tournament from last year; now they're undefeated—that's double target on your back. It's very difficult."

As much as the team insists it is taking it all game by game, going undefeated—especially when you never have before—adds pressure. "It seems like Coach Schaefer thinks that if we lose, people are going to be like, 'I told you so,'" William says.

At the UConn/Louisville game, things slow down in the second half. The shots aren't falling, and after the third UConn miss in a row, the crowd is getting restless. "Here we go," mutters a fan, despite the fact that UConn has yet to be ahead by fewer than 15 points.

Do UConn fans expect perfection? "They watch our players as if they were their daughters," Dailey says. "That kind of love and admiration, and also that feeling that it's OK for me to say anything about them, but nobody else better dare say anything."

That said, there is a sense that UConn is held to a different standard—a magnified version of the ever-moving goalposts placed on every sport women play.

"In men's basketball, a 12-point victory is a convincing win," Dailey continues. "For UConn, a 12-point victory against a Top Five opponent is, 'Oh, they only won by 12.' We can't win if we win by too many points, and we can't win if we only win by 12 points, and we certainly can't win if we lose or win by only one or two points. I'm not complaining, because we're OK with the standard that we've set, but I just never want our players to feel like what they've done isn't good enough. That's just not fair."

Indeed, the Huskies' dominance has sometimes been considered bad for the game, and a recent 81-point win over Wichita State caused a new round of social media grumbling—though Samuelson insists they weren't even looking at the scoreboard. "We felt good playing together and were just excited to be out there," she says. "No matter what, we try to play the same way without being concerned about the score."

Dailey says there are times when the Huskies get booed as they run out onto the court, before they've scored a point. According to her, Auriemma relishes it. "It's not a matter of trying to embarrass an opponent," she says. "It would be more embarrassing not to play the way that we play. Any coach or player that's a competitor wouldn't want anything less than our best shot."

Both teams hope their success is good for the sport as a whole—an additional responsibility on top of the necessity of winning itself. It's one that becomes particularly acute as they head into the NCAA tournament, one of the few moments when women's basketball is on the national stage.

UConn's dominance in women's basketball has made the Huskies one of the more polarizing teams in sports.
UConn's dominance in women's basketball has made the Huskies one of the more polarizing teams in sports.Jessica Hill/Associated Press

"People will sometimes not be happy with our team, but the amount of work we put in is to try to...we try to basically be perfect," Samuelson says. "I just hope people appreciate how much work that all players of women's basketball put into the game. On the outside, sometimes it'll look like it's easy or things are going right for us, but we've been through a lot as a team that no one will ever see. They'll never see the work we put in."

Adds Blair Schaefer: "A lot of people don't come and watch because there's a stigma: 'Oh, they can't dunk; it's like watching paint dry.' We've slowly changed that atmosphere here, and I just want people to know that it's very exciting to watch any team that just wants to win."

William is sitting on the sideline as the men's team gets on the court to start shooting around. "I just want people to be able to watch us like they watch the men," she says. "I don't want them to be like, 'Oh, this is going to be boring and slow.' We might not necessarily dunk, but we do play hard and aggressive and run fast. I feel like the game of basketball is evolving for women. We've impacted Mississippi State University, and I feel like last year, to a lot of kids, we impacted the world."


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