DALLAS — From the start of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer was, to a degree, strategically rolling the dice with his team. And it worked well… until the end.
South Carolina won the NCAA title Sunday with a 67-55 victory over the Bulldogs. As much attention as Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley got for claiming her long-awaited first national championship, there was perhaps just as much focus on what happened on the Bulldogs’ bench.
Specifically, why Schaefer let the breakout star of the NCAA tournament, junior point guard Morgan William, sit for the entire fourth quarter. She finished with eight points and four assists in 23 minutes.
Many fans watching in American Airlines Center and on television seemed baffled and angry as William was left on the bench for so long. Some even accused Schaefer of bailing on the player most responsible for the Bulldogs being in the title game. If nothing else, it left him open to a lot of second-guessing.
Schaefer, asked about his decision in the post-game press conference, didn’t mention William by name but referenced the need to bench some of his players because they lacked sufficient energy. He also said he thought that William’s replacement, sophomore Jazzmun Holmes, was playing well enough that he didn’t want to take her out. Holmes finished with six points in 17 minutes, playing the whole fourth quarter.
In Mississippi State’s locker room, William answered multiple questions about what happened. With an opportunity to express her disagreement with the decision, she instead deferred to Schaefer’s authority. She said she didn’t bring enough energy, she praised Holmes, and she said she didn’t expect Schaefer to explain his decision to her.
“He shouldn’t have to. He’s the coach. I’m just a player,” William said. “Whatever he thinks is best, that’s best for the team.”
But was it truly best for the Bulldogs to not play William at all in the last quarter of the last game of the season? That’s a hard sell, although here are a few things to consider. It wasn’t the fewest minutes William had played during this NCAA tournament — that was 15, in a second-round victory over DePaul, when Holmes was in for a season-high 25 minutes.
William also acknowledged she was tired Sunday, which was evident. As was the fact that Holmes — at 5-foot-8 to Willam’s maybe 5-5 — was an option in countering the perimeter defense by Gamecocks guards who are big (6-2 Kaela Davis, 6-0 Doniyah Cliney, 6-0 Allisha Gray, 5-10 Tyasha Harris) and small (5-6 Bianca Cuevas-Moore).
Cuevas-Moore clearly was bothering William, who also struggled to score in the Bulldogs’ first meeting this season with South Carolina (2 of 11 from field, four points), and then scored 14 points but had seven turnovers in their second matchup, in the SEC tournament final.
William’s comments Sunday earned her well-deserved praise on social media for showing respect for the coach’s authority. There are no shortage of athletes, college and pro, who would have responded quite differently. From the standpoint of saying the right thing at a very difficult time, William was admirably mature.
However, coaches are subject to public scrutiny. That’s just part of the job. They are not infallible. They are human, subject to nerves and uncertainty, and they don’t always make the right calls. Whether that was the case with Schaefer will be up for debate.
That said, his decision was in keeping with a bit of a gambling philosophy in regard to personnel throughout the NCAA tournament. And those gambles usually paid off.
For the first three games, Schaefer went with a different starting lineup than he’d used for almost the entire season. He sat four of the regular starters, including leading scorer Victoria Vivians, leaving only William in the starting lineup.
It was a success as the No. 2 seed Bulldogs beat No. 15 Troy, No. 7 DePaul, and No. 3 Washington. But then before the Oklahoma City Regional final against No. 1 seed Baylor, Schaefer changed the starting lineup once more, bringing back Vivians, Dominique Dillingham and Breanna Richardson, who in the first three games came off the bench.
Again, it worked: Vivians had 24 points and six assists in support of a career game from William, who had 41 points and seven assists in the victory over Baylor. And in the Final Four matchup with the overall No. 1 seed, UConn, Schaefer continued with the starting lineup he’d used in the regional final.
The Bulldogs upset the Huskies on an overtime buzzer-beater by William. It was one of the great moments in NCAA women’s tournament history.
That shouldn’t be diminished by the fact that things didn’t go as well for Mississippi State against its SEC nemesis South Carolina. It was a tall order for the Bulldogs to have to follow up a victory over UConn with another game less than 48 hours later. It was almost like having to play two national championship games back-to-back.
In the 22 years since UConn won its first NCAA title in 1995, only three teams have beaten the Huskies in the tournament and then gone on to win the championship: Tennessee in 1996 and 1997, and Notre Dame in 2001. Nine teams, including Mississippi State, have defeated the Huskies in the tournament, but then fell short of winning the title: NC State (1998), Iowa State (1999), Stanford (2005), Duke (2006), LSU (2007), Stanford again (2008) and Notre Dame (2011 and ’12.)
Bouncing back from the magnitude of beating UConn wasn’t the only thing that worked against Mississippi State. Both of its two games before the NCAA final went to overtime, and William played 40 minutes against Baylor and 41 against UConn.
The Bulldogs were in the late semifinal Friday night, with players not getting to bed until around 1 a.m. It wasn’t a surprise that William, when asked during media availability Saturday what she enjoyed most outside of basketball, said, “Sleep.”
Then, of all the teams that Mississippi State could have faced after the emotional rush but physical toll of beating UConn, it had to play South Carolina for a third time this season. Schaefer wasn’t kidding when he said he would have rather played any other team in the country.
The Gamecocks have had the Bulldogs’ number for a while now: South Carolina has won the past 11 matchups dating back to 2010, two years before Schaefer took over at Mississippi State.
So that was the scenario: Mississippi State was coming off the biggest win in program history, then going against another foe that neither the current Bulldogs’ players nor the coaches have beaten. And the physical and emotional fatigue played a factor.
All of which made the fact that the Bulldogs lost the NCAA final not that big of a surprise. But William not even getting a second on the floor in the last quarter was controversial. Some may speculate she said or did something on the bench that lessened Schaefer’s confidence in her.
Maybe it really did come down to him believing his best chance to win was without her on the floor. This is a coach who has taken Mississippi State to its first Women’s Final Four in just five years on the job. He’s earned respect.
But on a stage on which the Bulldogs had never before appeared, the way the curtain came down on William’s amazing NCAA tournament — with her off stage for so long — just didn’t seem like a fitting way for it to end.