The drama in Dallas this past weekend, where the women's Final Four concluded Sunday night with South Carolina's 67-55 victory over Mississippi State to bring the Gamecocks their first-ever basketball championship, exceeded all expectations.
We learned a great deal about all four teams, each of whom exceeded expectations in one way or another -- yes, even Connecticut, which fell to Mississippi State in the semifinals Friday night, 66-64, thanks to the heroics of Morgan William.
Let's start with Stanford, which managed to come back from 16 points down to beat Notre Dame and advance to the Final Four. The Cardinal reached Dallas thanks to an elite defense and balanced offensive attack that coach Tara VanDerveer admitted caused her a fair amount of nervous moments all season long, without a clear number one scoring option.
The reality of that hit Stanford hard in its 62-53 loss to South Carolina Friday night. While six different Cardinal players had led the team in scoring at some point during the year, it was Karlie Samuelson who provided the most efficient offensive contributions, ranking seventh in the country in points per possession, per Synergy. So when Samuelson went down awkwardly on her ankle, forcing her teammates to carry her off the court midway through the second quarter, the Cardinal attack never really recovered.
"Karlie twisting her ankle really kind of gave us a tough time," VanDerveer said. "She's really been the glue to our team all year. She talks, she makes big shots. If someone told before the game she won't score, I'd say we're in trouble."
Stanford led by eight at the time of the injury, 23-15. They were outscored, 47-30, over the remainder of the game. Samuelson returned for brief moments in the second half, but clearly wasn't moving at close to full speed.
As for Connecticut, the biggest takeaway, beyond definitive proof that the Huskies are capable of human moments on the court, was to make sure and listen to Geno Auriemma. The 11-time champion insisted all season that his Huskies were vulnerable, their margin for error much smaller than generally perceived or had been in past years during the Breanna Stewart Era, and that came to fruition against the Bulldogs.
Early foul trouble for Gabby Williams kept her from her typical, hyper-aggressive defensive attacks, allowing the Bulldogs to take advantage of their size inside with 6'7 Teaira McCowan, maximized by Morgan William's entry passes. It also led to Mississippi State taking a commanding 21-11 lead on the boards by halftime, a half in which the Bulldogs led by as many as 16 points and entered the locker room still up eight.
Both William and Bulldogs leading scorer Victoria Vivians acknowledged after the game that weathering the Connecticut runs from ahead, rather than behind, provided a psychological lift. And for the Huskies, who hadn't played many close games, that execution late proved fatal when Saniya Chong, in overtime, drove to the basket far too early, giving Mississippi State the possession that no one will ever forget.
"You know, Saniya's played more minutes in this NCAA Tournament than she has in the other three years combined," Auriemma told reporters, standing outside the locker room after his formal presser from the podium. He seemed eager to talk about the loss -- those who know Auriemma are sure he'll be using the loss as motivation every single day from now until every player on the roster who experienced it has graduated. "So now, she gets the ball, and she's trying to make a play to win the game. The problem is, it's seven seconds too early. But we probably wouldn't be in that position if she hadn't had the last couple of months she did."
Chong, a late-blooming senior, will not return, but every other major contributor from Connecticut will, along with a pair of intriguing transfers in Azura Stevens and Batouly Camara and the best recruiting class in the country led by top overall high school senior Megan Walker. Now Auriemma has a game to point to in practice constantly. Good luck, world.
As for the team that ended Connecticut's streak, they too return many of their best players, from William to McCowan to Vivians, though the loss of senior toughness from Dominique Dillingham and Breanna Richardson won't be easily replaced. Notably, in the championship game, Bulldogs coach Vic Schaefer played William just 23 minutes, electing to use Jazzmun Holmes to try and get maximum defensive effort.
This was really Schaefer taking strategy to its logical extreme. The same coach who benched four of his starters earlier in the tournament made it clear -- everyone is accountable at all times for defensive effort, even if the substitutions deprive him of his best offensive players down the stretch of a national title game.
It drew criticism from the outside, but it did something else: it buys Schaefer credibility with his team every time he asks them to dig deeper defensively next season.
"Again, we're educating," Schaefer said afterwards. "This is an education process. I was trying to get 'em going. Again, both ends of the floor is real important for us, for me as a coach. I try to hold people accountable."
As for Staley and South Carolina, it is hard to feel right now as if the center of the sport is anywhere by Greenville. Staley recently received the post as head coach for USA Basketball, so she's not only succeeded Geno Auriemma as national champion, she is on track to do so in gold as soon as the 2020 Olympics.
Her best players from this team -- A'ja Wilson, the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, along with wings Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray, and point guard Bianca Cuevas-Moore -- all return to defend their title.
The game as a whole should be stronger than ever nationally -- all five member of the all-tournament team return to school, while a pair of potential early entry candidates to the WNBA, Tennessee's Diamond DeShields and Ohio State's Kelsey Mitchell, decided to forego a likely top-five selection and return to school.
And the audience is responding already. This year's Final Four saw an overnight rating up 20 percent from last year's mark. The fans are a collection of old familiars and new converts. Greenville was the top market for television this weekend, but second and third carried the echoes of the Auriemma-Pat Summitt nexus-Hartford and Knoxville. Fans showed up in droves to see South Carolina win in Dallas, the Gamecocks leading the nation in attendance for the third year in a row. And Mississippi State kept climbing that leaderboard as well, the two programs destroying the idea of South Carolina and Mississippi as infertile territory for the women's game forever.
So nobody really lost this weekend in Dallas. Schaefer and his team returned to their hotel, where a thousand fans were waiting to greet them.
"But we'll be back," Schaefer concluded. "Again, it's been a heck of a ride. I appreciate everybody in here. It's been fun. Thank you for being here. All right, praise the Lord and go Dogs."