2018-04-01 13:18:06
What N.C.A.A. Women’s Finalists Share: Big Shots That Felled a Giant

13:18, April 01 66 0

COLUMBUS, Ohio — In this age of social media — at least until Friday night — it had been the most famous shot in women’s college basketball, taken by the smallest player on the court to defeat the biggest opponent, Connecticut.

When Morgan William of Mississippi State hit a 15-foot jumper as overtime expired in the semifinals of the 2017 N.C.A.A. tournament, snapping UConn’s 111-game winning streak, her mouth formed an “O” of accomplishment and surprise. All 5 feet 3 inches of her disappeared into a celebrative pile of teammates.

On the UConn bench, Coach Geno Auriemma smiled. His Huskies had won four consecutive championships. He knew the dice would not always roll in his favor. “Of course,” he said he told himself. “How could it end any other way? It’s time. That was the moment. That was the kid. That was the shot.”

In the end, though, the shot did not so much elevate William’s career as complicate it.

Lagging in energy, she did not play two days later in the fourth quarter of the national championship game, and the Bulldogs lost, 67-55, to South Carolina. This season, her role has changed at point guard. Her playing time and scoring average have dipped. She has not always felt comfortable with her shooting. Again, she has not always been on the court in vital moments.

Yet Mississippi State (37-1) has returned to the title game on Sunday. William, generously listed at 5-5, remains indispensable. Her game has grown ascendant in the most important part of the season. And she seems to have done for women’s college basketball what Roger Bannister did for the four-minute mile.

Once William was able to do what many had considered unthinkable — beating UConn — others also conceived of beating the undefeated Huskies. On Friday night, Notre Dame (34-3) took its turn, and this time, guard Arike Ogunbowale hit the jumper as overtime expired to defeat UConn, 91-89.

“I believe it gave hope to teams that they can beat UConn as well,” William said on Saturday. “Over the years, people have been complaining that UConn’s too good, they just dominate everyone. I feel like there’s programs out there that can get the job done.”

By Saturday morning, William had not yet contacted Ogunbowale, but she said she would probably tell her before Sunday’s tip-off: “You’re an all-American. You’re supposed to do that. I’m proud of you.”

But William drew a distinction between her shot and Ogunbowale’s. Her own shot had stopped UConn’s record winning streak, providing both an epic upset and cathartic redemption after the Bulldogs had lost by 60 points to the Huskies in the 2016 N.C.A.A. tournament.

Both shots were great, William said, but she added, “For us to hit that shot and beat them, I just won’t compare it.”

In retrospect, perhaps it was inevitable that William effectively ran out of gas in the 2017 championship game.

She had scored 41 points to help defeat Baylor in overtime in the final of the Oklahoma City Regional. The 66-64 victory over UConn also extended into extra time. William did not get to bed after the game until 4 a.m., when the celebration and interviews and adrenaline finally ebbed. Then she was up early the next morning for more interviews, practice and an autograph session.

“Beating UConn takes so much out of you,” said Kara Lawson, an ESPN commentator who played in three Final Fours at Tennessee. “I don’t think they had any juice left. Think about it. You hit that huge shot, your Twitter is blowing up, your Instagram, your phone. You’re not in bed till late. The next day, you’re playing for the national championship. I think that all hit her.”

The day after the championship game, William went to the gym at Mississippi State and practiced her shooting. “My safe haven,” she called it. She did not complain about being benched and has not complained this season about sharing more playing time with her fellow point guard Jazzmun Holmes. Coach Vic Schaefer does not owe her an explanation, she said.

He has said repeatedly that he will play the point guard with the most energy and the hottest hand.

“I don’t really know a player in college basketball who’s been complaining to the coaches,” William said. “Let me know if you find one and see if they’re on the team next week.”

Those who have known her the longest say that she has always been this way, stoic, even-keeled. She has spent her career disproving those who said she was too short. She has had to overcome the loss of her stepfather, who put a basketball in her hands when she was 3 years old and died of a heart attack when she was a senior in high school.

“She’s just a positive kid,” said Andy Landers, a former coach at Georgia whose summer camp William attended. He joked, “She thinks the glass is half full because her height won’t let her see the other half.”

This season, William’s scoring is less urgent. It is her job to facilitate the dominance of the 6-7 center Teaira McCowan (21 points, 25 rebounds in Friday’s semifinal win over Louisville) and the perimeter shooting of forward Victoria Vivians (25 points in the semifinals).

But Dionnah Jackson-Durrett, an assistant coach at Mississippi State, has implored William to be ready to take over when others languish. In the fourth quarter on Friday, William blocked a layup attempt by a Louisville player who is a foot taller. Then she assisted on a 3-point shot that forced overtime.

With 46 seconds remaining in the extra period and Mississippi State holding a 1-point lead, William hit two free throws. Then, with her back to the basket, she intercepted a long pass. That essentially put the game beyond reach for Louisville, which finally succumbed, 73-63.

“She is a tough, competitive cuss,” Schaefer said.

Asked if she would prefer to hit another game-winning shot on Sunday, William smiled and said, no, she would prefer a comfortable lead.

“It’s nice to hit a buzzer beater,” she said, “but no one wants it to come down to that.”