One of the most intriguing matchups in the Elite 8 features the contrasting styles of Kansas City regional No. 1 seed Mississippi State and third-seed UCLA, who vie for a Final Four spot tonight.
The Bulldogs are a classic SEC power team with strong, physical players at each position that can methodically run plays to perfection. The Bruins are fast and long and like to score in transition, as well as play suffocating defense. Mississippi State has super-guard Victoria Vivians, whose versatility has her filling many roles for the team. UCLA has an emerging chemistry from where any of six players can step up at any time to fill crucial roles.
But the outcome of the game will likely hinge on the matchups between Bulldog center Teaira McCowan and point guard Morgan William, and UCLA center Monique Billings and point guard Jordin Canada. Both sets of players have carried their teams for much of the season – especially in the Bruins’ case. The way William and Canada run their squads, and the ability of McCowan and Billings to finish inside, will likely dictate who wins.
“Those two matchups at point guard and five, I don’t think there is any doubt that’s going to be the key to the ball game for either team,” Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said. “I think you have two great ones at point, two great ones inside, and it will be fun to watch those kids go at it and compete against each other.”
Players on both teams mirror each other to a degree.
William is fearless at 5-5, and may be best-known for her game-winning shot over UConn in last year’s Final Four semifinal. That followed a 41-point outpour to get the Bulldogs through the Elite 8. In last Friday’s Sweet 16 game against NC State, William blocked a shot. She is an effective ball distributor who has a keen eye for the way things should be flowing on court.
Canada is a force at 5-6, and is averaging a team-high 16.9 points per game, 7.14 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 3.26 steals. She has taken command of many a game for UCLA, willing her team to the win. She is extremely fast and makes improbable baskets when she is not making eye-popping assists. She is the Pac-12 defensive player of the year, and is not afraid to go up against taller opponents.
McCowan’s development has skyrocketed since she was a sophomore last season, and this year she averages 18 points and 13.4 rebounds per game. At 6-7, she is a formidable presence in the paint.
Billings, a 6-4 senior, had a similar growth pattern during her career. She has averaged 15.4 points and 9.6 rebounds this year, but her biggest asset could be her speed and vertical jump. She is able to out run guards and leaps to get rebounds regularly.
William characterized Canada as an all-around player.
“First of all, (Canada) is a point guard overall, offensively and defensively,” she said. “She won Defensive Player of the Year in the Pac-12. She has a great offensive game, improving each year. She is probably the best point guard that I will go against this year.”
Canada is aware of the challenges she faces in William.
“Morgan William is a great point guard. She leads her team very well,” Canada said. “I’m just trying to use my advantages and my strengths over hers. I know it’s going to be a tough matchup.”
The X-factor for the Bulldogs Vivians, who averages a team-high 19.5 points per game, and grabs 6.1 rebounds. Schaefer said she gives the team an advantage.
“Victoria plays multiple positions for us and, you know, hopefully for them they’re going to have to figure out who is going to try to guard her,” he said.
Mississippi State’s last two starters, Roshunda Johnson and Blair Schaefer, shoot a combined 42 percent from the three-point line. Reserve Chloe Bibby has also been able to fill in for Vivians at time at the third or fourth spot.
Blair Schaefer said the Bulldogs have grown by leaps and bounds.
“I feel like over the four years we have gotten better individually because we go against each other so hard everyday,” she said. “When you go against great players, you don’t have a choice but to get better every day.”
Evolution has definitely been the calling card of the Bruins – especially over the last few weeks.
In their game Friday against Texas, UCLA saw all but one player score in their takedown win, which was similar to their performances of late. Starting forward Lajahna Drummer said their total team effort has evolved out of maturation.
“(In the past) when we had adversity, we would kind of sink down to it, but I think over time we’ve accepted it and then we’ve accepted the challenge, and came to move on,” Drummer said. “I feel like we’re not going to feel sorry for ourselves anymore.”
Starting guard Kelli Hayes said UCLA has been able to overcome obstacles in game situations that they hadn’t before.
“We know what we’ve done and what we’ve conquered, and all that adversity that we’ve been put through is no longer adversity to us,” Hayes said.
Schaefer is confident in his seniors going into the matchup with the Bruins, based on their past Tournament experience.
“For this team, this group, these seniors, the thing about them (is) they know what’s at stake,” he said. “They’ve been in this game before. That, I think, gives me confidence, probably gives them a little confidence too, to understand what’s coming down the pipe and how to respond in certain situations.”
Close said tough conference play has prepared her team for the showdown.
“At this point in the year we know who we are and when we play at our best,” she said. “We’re just trying to do the same thing we have been doing throughout the Pac-12 season, trying to prepare at a high level.”