DALLAS — For the past few weeks, Morgan William had become the darling of the women’s basketball world — and beyond — earning celebrity status for her daring and inspired performances in two of the season’s biggest upsets.
But Sunday night at American Airlines Center, with a national championship hanging in the balance and her team struggling to hang with old nemesis South Carolina, Mississippi State’s celebrated 5-5 guard was nowhere to be found.
With William on the bench for much of the second half, including the entire fourth quarter, the leaderless Bulldogs withered under a relentless inside assault from forward A’ja Wilson that carried South Carolina to a 67-55 victory and its first NCAA women’s basketball title.
The victory was South Carolina’s third in three meetings against its Southeastern Conference rival this season.
Wilson was named the women’s Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player after leading a dominating inside game with 23 points and 9-for-15 shooting. She added 10 rebounds, four blocked shots and two steals as the Gamecocks (33-4) outscored Mississippi State 42-20 in the lane and outrebounded the Bulldogs 40-27.
Mississippi State (34-5) tried to defend the 6-5 Wilson one-on-one with 6-7 center Teaira McCowan, but it was no contest. Wilson drove to the basket at will, scored over McCowan with ease and played smothering defense in the low post.
“I knew I needed to make an impact on the game,” Wilson said. “That was my mindset going in, whether that’s a block, a score, just yelling encouragement, whatever. We found a way of dominating the paint, of getting the ball inside.”
The Gamecocks also dominated outside, holding Mississippi State guards William and Victoria Vivians to 6-for-22 shooting. Vivians made her first two shots in the game’s first two minutes, then went 2-for-14 the rest of the night. And William, out of gas after the Bulldogs’ emotional overtime victory over Connecticut on Friday night, was frustrated by the quickness of South Carolina’s Bianca Cuevas-Moore.
“I’m proud of her for accepting that role,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “She committed to make an impact on the game by picking up Morgan William. Our game plan was to make it difficult for Morgan to get the ball where she wanted it.”
“I’m a great defender,” Cuevas-Moore said, “and we wanted to make it hard for them.”
Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said William, who finished with eight points and four assists in 23 minutes, was lifted because she was one of “a couple of kids who didn’t quite have the energy level we needed.”
At one point, he told backup point guard Jazzmun Holmes to go in and “run my team.”
“Coach wanted more energy and I guess I wasn’t bringing enough,” said William, who scored 41 points in an upset of top-seeded Baylor in the Oklahoma City Region final and stunned top-ranked Connecticut with a jumper at the overtime buzzer in a national semifinal.
She said fatigue was a factor, “but it’s basketball. You’ve got to find a way. I was winded, but I tried to find a way. I tried deep, deep down inside to find a way, but . . . it happens.
“I’d come to the sideline and my teammates were saying, ‘Mo, where you at?’ I said, ‘I’m here. I’m just trying to find my second wind.’ I wanted this game so bad. I think we wanted it so bad, we just didn’t perform the way we were supposed to.”
Still, the Bulldogs managed to stay in the game, closing their deficit to four twice in the second half. A 13-3 third-quarter run made it 48-44, and they got within 54-50 on Holmes’ double-pump lay-in with 6:54 left in the game.
But South Carolina responded with 12 consecutive points to pull away and give Staley, who played in three Final Fours for Virginia but never won one, a long-awaited title.
“It means that I can check off one of the things that had been a void in my career,” said Staley, wearing the championship net around her neck in the postgame news conference. “Something I wanted to do. It was one of two opportunities that I saw women play when I was younger — national championship games and Olympics. Those were things that I held dear and near to me growing up. Those were the things I saw and were shooting for.”