Mississippi State saw its dramatic run through the Women’s National Invitation Tournament come to a heart-breaking end Sunday night.
Rallying from down seven points in the final four minutes of play, MSU grabbed the lead on a Martha Alwal bucket but fell victim to a last-season three-point shot by Courtney Williams. Williams’ trey as time expired lifted the Bulls to a 60-58 victory before a crowd of 3,006 in the Humphrey Coliseum.
South Florida (23-12) will now face either Rutgers or Bowling Green in the semifinal round of the tournament later this week.
For MSU, the stellar season ends at 22-14. The Bulldogs won three postseason games for the first time in program history and finished with 20-plus wins for the fifth time ever. The team’s 22 victories stand as the fourth-most in school history.
“It was one heck of a basketball game,” MSU head coach Vic Schaefer said. “I never have been prouder to watch these young ladies grow. A year ago, we were doing individual workouts on March 5. This year, we are still playing 25 days later. I am proud of these ladies.
“The crowd was outstanding. The atmosphere was great. It needs to be that way every time because these ladies are paying the price to represent this university.”
Both teams struggled offensively in the opening half as the game quickly established itself as a defensive struggle.
South Florida built an 11-6 lead less than eight minutes into the contest. Back-to-back baskets by Kendra Grant, who finished a point shy of her career high with 22, brought the Bulldogs within 11-10. South Florida answered on the offensive end with a 3-point basket from Inga Orekhova.
The Bulls scored seven straight points to build a 21-14 lead. From there, State tightened up defensively and did not allow a field goal over the final 4:45 of the half.
The Bulldogs scored the half’s final eight points, and two free throws by Grant with 21 seconds left tied the contest at 22 at halftime.
In the opening half, each team hit 8-of-30 field goals for 26.7 percent shooting.
“It feels really good to see how far we have come,” Grant said. “Making it to the Elite Eight of the WNIT tells us that we have come a long way. It feels really good to know that we are making a difference and becoming a really good team.”
MSU started the second half with better offensive flow. The Bulldogs held the lead for all but one possession of the first 12 minutes of the second half. Behind the strong play of Breanna Richardson inside and Grant outside, the Bulldogs led by four points seven different times in the early stages of the half.
Over the stretch of three minutes, South Florida pieced together a 12-0 run to grab a 48-40 lead with 6:26 left. The Bulldogs were still down seven with 2:40 left before mounting one final threat.
“I don’t want these kids and this staff to feel like this again,” Schaefer said. “They work too hard and they have given their all. This team is on its way. The people who walked out of the arena tonight now have a connection with this team. They know this team is fun to watch.
“There is no one that is going to out-tough us or out-physical us.”
For the contest, the Bulldogs hit 20 of 62 shots from the field (32.3 percent), 0 of 6 shots from 3-point range (0.0 percent) and 18 of 25 shots from the free throw line (72.0 percent). The Bulls hit 23 of 58 shots from the field (39.7 percent), 3 of 13 shots from 3-point range (23.1 percent) and 11 of 19 shots from the free throw line (57.9 percent).
MSU held a 46-37 rebounding advantage. The Bulldogs had nine assists and 13 turnovers, while the Bulls had seven assists and 14 turnovers.
In addition to Grant’s 22 points, Richardson posted her fourth double-double, second of the WNIT, with 14 points and 14 rebounds. The Conyers, Ga., native’s 14 boards tied a career high.
A game removed from tying the school single-season blocks record, Alwal recorded the most rebounds by a Bulldog with 317 for her All-SEC junior campaign.
South Florida received 15 points from Orekhova, 13 points from Williams and 12 points from Alisia Jenkins.