KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Mississippi State’s Vic Schaefer was in no hurry to talk about returning to the Final Four, instead spending the first few minutes on the dais quietly circling the highlights on the box score.
There were plenty of them.
Teaira McCowan had 23 points and 21 rebounds, Victoria Vivans added 24 points, and top-seeded Mississippi State held on after blowing most of its big lead to beat third-seeded UCLA 89-73 on Sunday night and earn a repeat trip to the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament.
The Bulldogs will meet another No. 1 seed in Louisville on Friday night in Columbus, Ohio.
“They’ve lived all year with a bulls-eye on their backs. That’s hard to do, y’all,” said Schaefer, who arrived at the postgame news conference with the net draped around his neck.
“These kids,” their coach added, “are special.”
Morgan William added 17 points, and Roshunda Johnson had 12 for the Bulldogs (36-1), who extended their school record for wins in a season. Now, the task is to go one step further than Mississippi State did last year, when it fell to South Carolina in the national title game.
“I just had a real confidence today,” Schaefer said. “The TV crew made a comment, ‘Coach, this is the most chill I’ve seen you.’ I just had a real confidence.”
Jordin Canada led the relentless Bruins (27-8) with 23 points, eight rebounds and five assists, despite playing much of the game with a sprained elbow. Japreece Dean ad 16 points, and Monique Billings and Kennedy Burke had 12 apiece, most of it as the Bruins were rallying from a 50-32 hole.
They closed within 74-68 on Dean’s 3-pointer with 2:53 left, but they couldn’t get a stop on the defensive end. Instead, the Bruins and Bulldogs traded basket-for-basket down the stretch.
Mississippi State finally pulled away from the foul line in the final minute.
“I wanted to have a chance to coach this group for another day, but the reality is they’ve had a historic season,” UCLA coach Cori Close said. “I love them. I’m proud of them, and there is nothing that could happen today that would change that.”
Early on, the Bulldogs followed the same formula they used in routing North Carolina State, dumping it into the much larger McCowan for easy baskets inside. The 6-foot-7 center, who had 24 points in that regional semifinal, scored six during an 11-0 run that gave her team the lead.
Vivians gave the Bulldogs control.
The senior forward from Carthage, Mississippi, converted a three-point play to begin the second period, then added eight more later in the quarter. She finished with 16 points in the first half, and her spinning, driving layup helped the Bulldogs take a 42-26 lead into the locker room.
The only offense UCLA could muster came from Canada, and most of that was at the foul line.
“Mississippi State’s game plan was to pressure us and try to get the ball out of my hands,” Canada said, “so I thought in the beginning of the game we had a lull where we couldn’t run anything.”
The Bulldogs’ lead eventually reached 18 points midway through the third quarter before the Bruins, fueled by defense, began to nip away at it. UCLA finally got it under 10 at 53-44 before Blair Schaefer hit a couple of deep 3-pointers to give Mississippi State another boost.
UCLA made one final run, trimming a 67-52 deficit to 67-61 with 6:52 to go. But after the teams traded baskets, Schaefer knocked down her third 3 from the top of the key to silence the Bruins’ bench.
Mississippi State kept finding answers until putting the game away.
“This is the hardest time to put into words what’s in my heart,” Close said. “It’s really difficult to get through our disappointment because we really believed we expected to win, but at the same time there is no way to put into words the depth of pride I have in these women.”
UCLA needed someone to step up with Canada dealing with blanket defense, and they finally did when Dean and Billings fueled the Bruins’ late run. But the Bulldogs had enjoyed a comfortable lead most of the game, and they were perhaps a bit fresher down the stretch.
Mississippi State leaned heavily on McCowan in the regional semifinals, but the Bulldogs showed off their balance against UCLA. Vivians, William and Johnson provided offensive punch, and Schaefer hit her only three 3-point attempts at important moments.
Mississippi State is headed to Columbus, Ohio, where it will try to finish the deal. But first up is Louisville, which routed Oregon State 76-43 to reach the Final Four.