State coaches: Friday a landmark night for women's basketball

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Bernard Scott has been going to the Women’s NCAA Tournament Final Four every year he’s been involved in coaching, some 16 in all.

Suzy Merchant

He’s never experienced anything like what went down Friday night in Dallas, where the juggernaut Connecticut Huskies were stunned by Mississippi State, snapping UConn’s 111-game winning streak.

“This was the best atmosphere that I’ve been a part of,” said Scott, who just finished his second season as head coach at Detroit Mercy.

“There’s been good games before, but nothing like this.

“This was pretty amazing, just how the crowd was so invested.”

A sellout crowd at American Airlines Center watched the two Final Four games. South Carolina beat Stanford in the opening game, then Mississippi State stunned Connecticut in OT in the late game — a game that, perhaps in a first in women’s college basketball, captured the attention of the nation, Twitter activity picking up steam at halftime and going absolutely bonkers when a 5-foot-5 guard named Morgan William made the winning shot as time ran out.

College coaches rarely openly root against a team, but several women’s basketball coaches from Michigan called the night a “monumental” game in the sport’s history.

University of Detroit Mercy head women's basketball coach Bernard Scott

“The level of excellence at UConn is off the charts,” Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant said. “Nobody’s done it better, and everybody marvels and appreciates and respects what Geno (Auriemma) has done.

“But everybody likes an underdog, and it had to be somebody, sometime.”

And, boy, was Mississippi State an underdog. Consider this:

■ Mississippi State lost by 60 — Six. Zero. — to Connecticut in last year’s Sweet 16.

■ Mississippi State was a 22-point underdog entering the Final Four game.

■ And even while trailing by eight at halftime, Vegas had UConn a 4-to-1 favorite.

“There were people in the stands, everyone’s making plans for what they’re going to do after the first game, whether they’re going to stick around for the first half of the second game,” said Oakland coach Jeff Tungate, who was in the stands. “Halftime came, and they were like, ‘Well, we need to check out the third quarter and maybe we can go after that.’

“It was funny. There were so many of the people at halftime, saying, ‘If we go, we can do this, this or this.’ Next thing you know ...

“Nobody saw that coming.”

And Mississippi State never blinked, not even when a highly questionable flagrant foul call late in OT threatened to continue UConn’s streak in controversial fashion.

So many elements made the game a landmark event for the women’s game, starting with Connecticut’s streak, of course. It hadn’t lost a game since November 2014, and had run off four consecutive NCAA champions.

(Side note: Entering Friday night, UConn had lost just six times since mid-February 2012, one of those to a St. John’s team that then was coached by Kim Barnes Arico, Michigan’s coach who had the Wolverines playing in the WNIT championship game Saturday at Calihan Hall.)

Dallas Cowyboys quarterback Dak Prescott, a Mississippi State alum, was in the stands, wearing his team’s jersey and cheering wildly.

And then there was the winning shot by William, whose performance to get to the Final Four came three years and a day after her stepfather died. During the postgame interview Friday, Prescott joined William.

“What a great story,” Tungate said. “Just the whole thing, it’s a made-for-TV movie.

“I think it’s great for the game, the exposure Connecticut got for winning 111 games, that’s good for the game. Then to show that other teams are capable of getting it done, too. That just helps show what a great product there is, and I think it’s only gonna elavate everyone’s level of play.

Tungate has been going to the Women’s Final Four for the last four years, and like Scott, he said it’s the best atmosphere he’s ever seen.

There were two crowds of fans — the UConn fan base, and then everyone else was quick to hop in Mississippi State’s corner, especially when it took an eye-opening 16-point lead in the opening quarter.

Merchant — whose MSU team lost to Mississippi State early in the NCAA Tournament a year ago, and whose MSU team will play Connecticut next season in the Phil Knight 80th-birthday showcase tournament — wasn’t at the game Friday. She was with Tori Jankoska at the men’s Final Four on Thursday, for the all-star showcase in Phoenix, and she’s been recruiting. Plus, she said, “I have a hard time watching basketball right now. Postseason depression. It’s legit!”

Still, she didn’t downplay the significance of the game, and the outcome.

“Men’s or women’s, it’s a competitive game in the Final Four, and everybody wants to see that,” Merchant said. “The fact that they beat UConn, I think, is pretty significant in our game right now. Mostly because of how good UConn’s been, I think some people think that’s led to a little lost interest in our sport, sometimes.”

That’s not to say anything disparaging of Auriemma, of course. The success he’s had at Connecticut — 11 championships, and six undefeated seasons — has, in large part, helped grow the interest in the game over the years.

Auriemma has helped build a program that all others aspire to emulate, even if for just a year. And his reaction to the winning shot Friday — no yelling or flailing arms; just a big, old smile — suggested even he knew what the result meant to the sport.

“The fans and everyone there just wanted to see a great game and see history made,” Scott said. “And it was made.”