DALLAS ― South Carolina fended off Southeastern Conference rival Mississippi State for the biggest prize in women’s college basketball.
The Gamecocks led by as many as 14 points in the second half, then survived a Bulldogs charge to claim a 67-55 victory in the NCAA Tournament championship game on Sunday evening at the American Airlines Center.
In doing so, South Carolina (33-4), making its second Final Four appearance under head coach Dawn Staley, won its first national championship.
The Bulldogs couldn’t solve South Carolina, falling to the Gamecocks for the third time this season. But Mississippi State (34-5) can hold onto the distinction of being the team that ended Connecticut’s 111-game winning streak as the Bulldogs prevailed in 64-62 in overtime during a Friday semifinal.
Forward A’ja Wilson powered the Gamecocks on both offense and defense as she finished with 23 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks. Guard Allisha Gray pitched in 18 points and 10 rebounds.
Guard Victoria Vivians led Mississippi State with 12 points, and guard Dominique Dillingham added 11.
South Carolina held Bulldogs guard Morgan William, the hero in Mississippi State’s Elite Eight and national semifinal wins, to eight points on 2-of-6 shooting.
South Carolina was threatening to run away with the title before Mississippi State clawed back into the contest in the third quarter.
The Bulldogs grabbed momentum with a 9-0 run to slice into South Carolina’s 14-point lead. William’s made a steal and layup to highlight the run, then forward Ketara Chapel hit a jumper that cut the Gamecocks’ lead to 45-40 with 3:37 to go in the third quarter.
But Wilson and Gray made the key baskets South Carolina needed in the fourth quarter to keep the Gamecocks in the lead. They combined for baskets on back-to-back possessions in the middle of the fourth to restore an eight-point Gamecocks lead with 4:56 remaining, and Mississippi State never got back within six points.
South Carolina stretched out a 13-point lead in the first half as it dominated the end of the first quarter and the beginning of the second.
The Gamecocks trailed by two before they went on a 19-4 run to take control.
Gray scored seven points during the surge as she consistently drove into the lane. Wilson helped fuel the run with a layup and a pair of free throws to give South Carolina a 25-16 lead with 6:49 remaining until halftime.
Guard Tyasha Harris went to the basket for a layup to cap the run and stake the Gamecocks to a 13-point margin.
But Mississippi State battled back despite foul trouble and a scoring drought of more than four minutes in the first half.
Reserve forward Chinwe Okorie hit a jumper from the free-throw line, then Dillingham, who played most of the first half with two fouls, drove for a basket. And Vivians made a shot to cut South Carolina’s lead to nine.
Wilson and Gray each scored 11 to lead the Gamecocks in the first half. Wilson hit a free throw that put South Carolina ahead 36-26 at the break.
NOTES: The all-SEC national championship game between Mississippi State and South Carolina was the sixth time two teams from the same conference met for the tournament title. It was the third time two SEC teams played in the championship game ― Tennessee vs. Georgia in 1996 and Tennessee vs. Auburn in 1989. ... South Carolina and Mississippi State were each making their first appearance in the national championship game. That marked the first time that two first-timers met in the tournament final since 2005 when Baylor defeated Michigan State. ... South Carolina leads Mississippi State 19-16 in the all-time series. The Gamecocks have a 10-game winning streak in the rivalry that dates to Mississippi State’s last victory over South Carolina on Feb. 11, 2010.