South Carolina grinds its way past Mississippi State for first national title

South Carolina won its first national title Sunday, beating Mississippi State. (AP)
South Carolina won its first national title Sunday, beating Mississippi State. (AP)

No. 1 seed South Carolina got coach Dawn Staley her long-awaited national title Sunday, taking control early and withstanding several second-half punches to beat No. 2 seed Mississippi State, 67-55, to win the women’s Final Four.

The Gamecocks went old school, eschewing the long ball and instead dominating inside. They controlled the paint throughout the night, with A’Ja Wilson proving too much to handle. The junior forward finished with 23 points off 9-for-15 shooting, adding 10 rebounds and four blocked shots. Wilson’s offensive rebound and putback off a Allisha Gray miss with 1:39 to go finished off a late 8-0 run and extended South Carolina’s lead to 66-52.

Wilson was named the Final Four’s most outstanding player.

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“I really can’t even put into words the feeling of how much it meant to win this game for Coach,” Wilson told reporters during the postgame press conference. “She’s put in so much time, so much sweat, just voiced her voice into us. Just prepping for times like this.

“I think she really helped our confidence, to get over this hump that we were going through with adversity, stuff like that. It really means something special to kind of bring this back home, especially for such a great person like Coach Staley.”

Staley subbed out Wilson and the rest of the Gamecocks’ regulars to a standing ovation with 41.4 seconds to go, with Wilson overcome with emotion on the bench in the game’s final seconds.

The win marked the program’s first ever national title, and it marked the first for Staley as a player or coach. Staley, who played at Virginia from 1988-92, had made three Final Fours and one national championship game as a player, never crossing the finish line. Her performance in the 1991 Final Four earned her most outstanding player honors despite the defeat, making her the last player to earn MOP in a losing effort.

“It means that I can check off one of the things that has been a void in my career,” Staley said at the postgame press conference. “It’s one of two opportunities that I saw women play when I was younger. National championship games and Olympics. Those were the things that I held dear and near to me when I was growing up, because those are the things that I wanted. That’s what I saw. That’s what I was shooting for.

“When I couldn’t get it done in college, I thought that was it. I never wanted to be a coach. I never wanted to, you know, be sitting where I’m sitting. Dave O’Brien, the late Dave O’Brien, the athletic director at Temple University, saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. He asked me to come and be a part of changing the program at Temple.

“From then on, I really can’t see myself doing anything other than what I’m doing, impacting the lives of young people, and also being able to check this box off in my career. I’m really grateful and thankful that he made this possible.”

The win also marked the extension of a run of collegiate athletic glory for the state of South Carolina: Coastal Carolina won the College World Series last June, Clemson won the College Football Playoff in January and the Gamecocks captured the women’s basketball national title Sunday — one day after their counterparts on the men’s team saw their season end in the men’s Final Four.

South Carolina achieved the crown in unconventional fashion, becoming the first title-game winner in 15 years to not hit a 3-point shot, as the Gamecocks had just three attempts from long range. They instead bullied the Bulldogs down low, out-rebounding them 40-27 and blocking eight shots to the Bulldogs’ three. They outshot the Bulldogs as well, hitting 45.5 percent of their shots to MSU’s 34.5 percent.

The loss marked the end of a charmed run for the Bulldogs, who had taken the sports world by storm Friday night with their overtime upset of UConn, snapping the Huskies’ record 111-game winning streak. The biggest reason for that win, Morgan William, had an off night in the finale, shooting just 2-for-6 from the floor and finishing with 8 points and four assists. The 5-foot-5 point guard was kept in check throughout the night by South Carolina’s Bianca Cuevas-Moore.

“I am so proud of her maturation process,” Staley said of Cuevas-Moore on the podium. “We’ve had her for three years now, she could’ve easily walked away from all of this, walked away from the discipline, walked away and went back to New York, because some of her New York people were trying to get her to come back. But she stayed. The very thing that makes Bianca Bianca is that she stayed.

“Now look at her: She’s a national champion.”

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Matt Fortuna is a contributor for the Yahoo Sports blogs. Have a tip? Email him or follow him on Twitter!