SC, Miss State know each other well, adding intrigue to all-SEC final

SC, Miss State know each other well, adding intrigue to all-SEC final

**Story by Jeff Owens/Photo by SC Media Relations**

DALLAS — As Mississippi State celebrated its wild, stunning upset over UConn Friday night, Dawn Staley walked by the MSU locker room and peeked inside. 

She wanted to get a look at a historic victory celebration, and congratulate a team and coach that she is all-too familiar with. 

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"I looked in their locker room and I just saw them very, very happy for accomplishing something that most people didn't think could get done," Staley said. "I actually wanted to get some eye contact from somebody just to say congratulations, because you work so hard, you want to make sure that you give credit where credit is due. … (And) I also wanted to let them have their moment."

Now, with the sport's most dominant team out of the way, South Carolina and Mississippi State will have their moments on the season's biggest stage. But they both face another monumental challenge, playing each other for the third time this season, this time for the national championship. 

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South Carolina has beaten Mississippi State twice this season, 64-61 in Columbia and 59-49 in the final of the SEC Tournament. Staley knows it will be difficult to beat the red-hot Bulldogs again, especially after MSU just stopped Connecticut's record 111-game winning streak. 

Playing an SEC rival in the national finals is both a blessing and a curse. Both teams know each other really well — maybe too well. 

“It makes it ten times harder because they know you just as much as we know them," All-American forward A'ja Wilson said. "We have seen them so many times that they probably know us better then we know ourselves." 

"It does make it easier, but … for what Mississippi State has done over the past five games, they're much different than they were when we played them in the SEC tournament championship," Staley said. "They're playing at an all-time high. You can't go into the game thinking you can just do the same old things."

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Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer, whose team just accomplished something no one thought could be done in taking down UConn, knows his team will have its hands full again with South Carolina, which has won four straight SEC championships and made it to the Final Four for the second time in three years.  

"We've had two knockdown, dragouts with them," he said. "We've been beaten twice by South Carolina. Our kids know what's coming down the pike. … We've got one heck of a team to get ready for."

Schaefer gives Staley and South Carolina credit for his own team's current hot streak. Mississippi State led South Carolina for three quarters in the SEC championship game before the Gamecocks completely shut down the Bulldogs in the fourth quarter to win by 10.

"When we walked out of the gym four weeks ago, scored four points in the fourth quarter, that will humble you in a hurry," Schaefer said. "That kind of led to some of the things we did differently."

Playing pressure defense and an uptempo style, the two teams are mirror images of each other, and Schaefer says that makes South Carolina difficult to play against. 

"They attack you with so much aggression," he said. "They're physical. I mean, they play the way that we do. 

"If we'll play the way we typically play, we'll have a chance. But we're going to have to play really hard, we're going to have to be physical, aggressive. We have to try to take away some of those things that they're doing really well right now."

South Carolina has also changed the way it plays in recent weeks, starting with the SEC tournament and the win over Mississippi State. With senior center Alaina Coates lost for the season, Staley has employed a four-guard lineup that plays fast and can score in a variety of ways. 

And it still has Wilson, who Schafer calls the best player in the country. Wilson is averaging more than 19 points per game in the postseason and had 13 points and 19 rebounds in the semi-final win against Stanford Friday. 

"They play around A'ja, who you just can't get a butt on her. She's so good," he said. "In my opinion, she's the best player in the country. I mean, I've had to deal with her now for three years. I ought to know."

Staley says the fact that her team beat Mississippi State twice this season means very little now. 

"The margin of error was small. The games could have gone either way," she said. "We just made one or two more plays than they did in the fourth quarter of both games.

"And you're playing for a national championship. You've got to throw all of that out the door."

The all-SEC final is even more compelling because it features two new teams playing for a national championship in a sport that has been dominated by a handful of programs the past two decades. UConn has won 11 national titles, including the last four. 

Staley says UConn's upset and the emergence of two new teams is good for the sport.  

"It's good to shake it up a little bit. I think more people are going to start watching it just because," she said. "I think it breathes (life) into women's basketball, knowing that it's not the same old, same old, same old UConn. 

"Although it's been an incredible ride … it's been a beautiful thing to watch, it's great to know that somebody else is going to win a national championship. It's different. It's a nice little flavor to it."

An SEC flavor among two teams very familiar with each other. 

"It's down to two of us," Schaefer said. "Southeastern Conference teams playing for the national championship. Hey, that's pretty special."