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After miracle upset, Mississippi State faces familiar foe in South Carolina for NCAA crown

Mississippi State head coach Vic Schaefer, left, calls

Mississippi State head coach Vic Schaefer, left, calls to his players during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Connecticut in the semifinals of the women's Final Four, Friday, March 31, 2017, Friday, March 31, 2017, in Dallas. (AP Photo/LM Otero) Credit: AP / LM Otero

DALLAS — Looking for a way to motivate his players on the eve of an NCAA Tournament game in which they faced impossible odds against a seemingly invincible opponent, Mississippi State women’s basketball coach Vic Schaefer showed them the movie “Miracle’’ — the story of the U.S. hockey team’s stunning victory over the mighty Soviet team in the 1980 Olympics.

That was in March 2016. The Bulldogs were so inspired, they lost to top-ranked Connecticut by 60 points.

This year, Schaefer didn’t play the film for his team. Instead, the Bulldogs are living it.

Like the American Olympians, Mississippi State (34-4) slew the giant, shocking UConn, 66-64, in overtime in a national semifinal Friday night. But like those Olympians, that’s not the end of the story. There’s one game left.

That comes at 6 p.m. Sunday, when the Bulldogs will face Southeastern Conference rival South Carolina for the NCAA championship at American Airlines Center.

That game might seem anticlimactic in the wake of a victory over a team that had won 111 consecutive games and four straight national titles — a contest that is being hailed by many as one of the greatest in women’s basketball history. But for the Bulldogs to feel as if they have done their job, it can’t be.

“It felt like we won it all when we won that game,” said junior guard Morgan William, whose pull-up jumper at the OT buzzer provided the winning points. “But we know we didn’t. We still have unfinished business.”

That business is not insignificant. South Carolina (32-4) was the top seed in the Stockton Region, and the Gamecocks’ leader, do-it-all 6-5 junior A’ja Wilson, is a two-time SEC player of the year.

Not to mention the fact that they’ve played twice this season and South Carolina has won both games, including a 59-49 victory in the SEC Tournament final in which USC outscored Mississippi State 19-4 in the fourth quarter.

“When you walk out of the gym having scored four points in the fourth quarter,” Schaefer said, “that will humble you in a hurry.”

Wilson is the Gamecocks’ leading scorer at 17.7 points per game, but her value goes far beyond that.

Though her scoring was stifled by double- and triple-teams for much of Friday night’s 62-53 semifinal victory over Stanford, she still dominated the game, pulling down 19 rebounds, leading her team with four assists and blocking and altering shots around the basket. Oh, and she scored seven of her 13 points in the fourth quarter to help seal the win.

She also is South Carolina’s undisputed leader.

“She keeps our spirits high,” freshman guard Tyasha Harris said. “She controls what we wear — because we have to match when we go places . . . She stays up late talking to the coaches and relays that to the team. It’s great to have a leader who can do whatever is needed in the game whenever it’s needed.”

For the Bulldogs to finish their business, Mississippi State guards William and Victoria Vivians (16.3 points per game) must counter Wilson’s skills by making plays and controlling the ball. William had seven turnovers in her last outing against the Gamecocks.

For the record, the U.S. hockey team followed its upset over the Soviets by beating Finland for the gold medal. Mississippi State hopes to follow that script.

The UConn game “was obviously a big win,” guard Dominique Dillingham said. “But we don’t want that to be what we’re known for. We want to be known as national champions.”

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