UConn women's 111-game winning streak ends, Miss St wins at buzzer

UConn women's 111-game winning streak ends, Miss St wins at buzzer

DALLAS -- When the final shot beat the buzzer and UConn's record streak was over, Geno Auriemma had to smile.

After all the winning, the Huskies coach could appreciate a thrilling victory -- even from the other side.

UConn's 111-game run came to a stunning end when Mississippi State pulled off perhaps the biggest upset in women's basketball history, winning 66-64 on Morgan William's overtime jumper in the national semifinals Friday night.

"You know what? When stuff like this happens, it kind of makes me shake my head and go, `You know how many times this could have happened and it didn't happen?'" Auriemma said. "The fact that it never happened, that doesn't mean I went home thinking it's never going to happen. I knew this was coming at some point."

"I'm just shocked that it took this long to get here," he said.

The Huskies hadn't lost in 865 days, with that defeat coming to Stanford in overtime on Nov. 17, 2014. Winning had become routine, often by routs. But in an instant, their drive toward a fifth consecutive national championship had been blocked.

When William's jumper dropped, Auriemma broke into that wry smile. He turned to his bench, then went to congratulate the Bulldogs.

"I just kind of shook my head. This kid's had an incredible run," Auriemma said. "When it went in, it was almost like, of course. Of course, it's going to go in."

"Look, nobody's won more than we've won," he said. "I understand losing, believe it or not. We haven't lost in a while, but I understand it. I know how to appreciate when other people win."

It took an incredible shot by Mississippi State's diminutive point guard to end the historic streak.

William hit a 15-footer to cap it, moments after a replay review awarded UConn two free throws for a flagrant 1 foul call that tied the game with 26.6 seconds left.

"I live for moments like this," William said. "UConn, they're an incredible team. For me to make that shot against them, it's unbelievable. I'm still in shock right now. I wanted to take the shot. I wanted to take the shot and I made it."

William's shot came one game after she scored a career-high 41 points to help Mississippi State beat Baylor and advance to its first Final Four.

The Bulldogs (34-4) will play South Carolina for the national championship Sunday night in a matchup of two SEC teams.

Mississippi State and UConn met in the Sweet 16 last season and the Huskies won by 60 points -- the most-lopsided win in regional semifinals history. All season long the Bulldogs had that humiliating loss on their minds.

Now they've erased that defeat, beating UConn (36-1) on the grandest stage in one of the sport's greatest games.

"I don't have to play them 100 times. Only have to beat them once," Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said. "That is one heck of a basketball team, the greatest of all-time. But how proud am I of my kids?"

Mississippi State led 64-62 before a replay review gave Katie Lou Samuelson the two free throws that tied the game. After a UConn turnover, William held the ball at the top of the key before dribbling to her right and pulling up for the shot, with the ball in the air when the buzzer sounded.

The Bulldogs ran onto the court, piling up at center court while UConn players stood stone-faced. Schaefer grabbed William in a bear hug, with former Mississippi State star Dak Prescott -- the Dallas Cowboys quarterback -- helping lead the cheers in a sellout crowd.

Prescott said he'd try to come back Sunday for the title game.

UConn rallied from a 16-point deficit, its biggest during its NCAA record streak, to take a 59-56 lead in the fourth quarter. The teams were tied at 60 when the Bulldogs had a chance to win it in regulation, but William's shot was blocked by Gabby Williams, sending the game into overtime.

"Maybe we're just not ready for this. Maybe we were ready for everything else, but maybe we're just not mature enough for this," Auriemma said. "Maybe all our young kids needed to experience this so that we can come back and really be ready for this."

Neither team scored much in OT with Teaira McCowan's layup with 1:12 left in the extra session breaking a 62-62 tie. It was the lone basket for Mississippi State in OT until William's game-winner.

During their last two decades of dominance where they've won 11 national championships, the Huskies rarely found themselves trailing -- let alone by double-digits. This was the first time this season that UConn was losing in the fourth quarter.

The Bulldogs got off to a great start, taking it right at the Huskies like not many teams had done during the streak. The Bulldogs led 15-13 before scoring 14 straight points to go up 29-13. It was the biggest deficit UConn had faced during its historic streak and one of the largest during the last 22 years, which the Huskies have dominated with 11 national championships.

The Huskies rallied to within 29-25 as senior Saniya Chong scored seven points during a 12-0 run. Mississippi State answered and was up 36-28 at the half.

UConn came back in the third quarter behind its trio of All-Americans with Williams, Napheesa Collier and Samuelson keying a 12-3 run to start the second half. That run brought Huskies alums Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart and Maya Moore, who were sitting 20 rows behind the UConn bench, to their feet.

"We had an incredible run, but we came up against a much better team tonight," Auriemma said.

Streak buster
The loss ended a 28-game NCAA Tournament winning streak for UConn. The last loss came to Notre Dame in 2012 in the Final Four. That was the last OT game in the national semifinals.

Quarterback connection
Prescott wasn't the only QB in attendance on Friday night. Donovan McNabb was also in Dallas, cheering on niece Kia Nurse, who stars for Connecticut. Seattle Seahawks QB Russell Wilson was supporting his sister Anna, who is a freshman at Stanford in the first game.

Good Morning Mississippi
Good Morning America co-host Robin Roberts was sitting at center court. She was cheering on the Bulldogs, who hail from her home state. Roberts brought out a Bulldogs jersey on her morning show.

Penn Relays: After long climb, English Gardner's life is on track

Penn Relays: After long climb, English Gardner's life is on track

The brick wall separating the stands from the track within Franklin Field is, perhaps, six feet tall.

The first time English Gardner attended the Penn Relays, as a 12-year-old, she rushed to that barrier and looked down upon the competitors milling about before an event. She was a budding sprinter then, and admittedly "kind of a crazy kid, and very confident in my abilities."

Spotting Lauryn Williams, the great American sprinter, Gardner delivered a simple message.

"I'm gonna take your job one day," she screamed.

Who knew then that far more imposing barriers would lie ahead? That making the leap from the stands to the track would be the least of her worries?

***

Gardner, a Philadelphia native who graduated from Eastern High School in Voorhees, New Jersey, was back at the Relays this weekend, running 100-meter legs in the victorious women's sprint medley relay and the second-place 4x100 relay, as part of Saturday's USA vs. the World competition.

It was maybe the sixth or seventh time she has competed at the event over the years, she said one day earlier. This time, she returned as an Olympic champion, having been part of the 4x100 relay team that won gold last summer in Rio.

As the 25-year-old Gardner sat in a news conference Friday, she seemed every bit as bubbly and self-assured as she had been all those years ago. She was wide-eyed. She laughed easily. She talked about personal records and putting on a show this weekend.

Long gone were the vestiges of depression, with which she had struggled late in 2015 and in the early months of last year. Her first public discussion of her battle with that disease had been with SI.com's Lindsay Schnell on the eve of the Rio Games, and she talked about it again when she was pulled aside following Friday's presser.

It had been "a slow descent," Gardner said, and it left her in a deep, dark place. She recovered only with the help of professionals, as well as her family. And now she appears to be all the way back.

"I believe to be able to rebuild, stuff has to be destroyed, and that was my moment," she said. "I needed to be broken down. I needed to destroy it and now I'm back and I'm better, I'm stronger, I'm more confident and I'm just a totally different person. I'm having fun with track again, and that's what it's all about."

Her openness about her affliction was born of a desire to help others. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 15 million American adults struggle with depression. That's 6.7 percent of the United States' population, aged 18 and older.

"The thoughts that I had — suicide and stuff like that — those thoughts are real," she said. "I thought that sharing my story last year would give someone hope — let them know there's other options than that option."

According to Schnell's story, Gardner's mom, Monica, believed her daughter — the second-oldest of four children born to her and her husband, Anthony — was destined for great things from birth, and as a result gave her a distinctive first name "that people would remember, something that sounded good over a loudspeaker."

That proved to be the case. She starred at Eastern, then won two NCAA 100-meter outdoor championships, as well as a 60-meter indoor title, during her three years at Oregon.

After turning pro in 2013, she sought not only to harness her considerable physical abilities but also her emotions. She was too skittish, her coach told her, too ridden by anxiety.

As a result, she said, "I basically created an alter ego where I can contain her and gear her only toward getting my goals, and that's getting a gold medal."

She took to calling this thing "Baby Beast."

"I just needed to contain her," she said, "because she was running wild, all over the place."

She finished second in the 100 at the USATF outdoor meet in the spring of 2015, but by that fall her fortunes had turned. A torn hamstring was limiting her on the track. She and her coach were not on the same page. 

"All these things kind of weighed down on me," she said. "My love life was crappy. Spiritually I had kind of gotten away [from] my meditation and praying, things like that. As it went on longer, the worse it got."

Next stop, rock bottom. And she stayed there for about six months, by her recollection.

"I've never experienced anything like that — anxiety, depression, just not wanting to get up out of bed, not wanting to go to practice, not wanting to eat, lights off all the time — just stuff like that," she said.

Her mom flew to Los Angeles, where English was living at the time, to help out. As Monica told Schnell, "We loved her back to life." Her daughter had, in fact, done much the same for her a decade earlier, when Monica survived breast cancer.

English also sought professional help, from not only a psychologist but a sports psychologist and a spiritual counselor.

"I tripled up on myself," she said with a laugh. "I'm a big personality, so I figured to control that big personality, I needed more than one person."

She won the 100 at last year's Olympic Trials, and while she slipped to seventh in that event in Rio, she did earn gold in the relay.

She was back. Back on the side of the wall, she had been trying to reach for so very long.

And there she remains.

Penn, Villanova back for more championships at Penn Relays

Penn, Villanova back for more championships at Penn Relays

Like many people who come from nearby high schools, Penn senior Chris Hatler has been running at the Penn Relays since he was 15. But his initial experience at the famed meet did not go exactly as planned

“The first relay ever, I fell in the first 100 meters,” he said, “and made a fool of myself.”

Such can be the dangers of overwhelmed teenagers competing at a competition that also features college and professional stars — a three-day track & field carnival that is the oldest and largest of its kind in the country.

But last year, Hatler became one of those college stars himself, helping Penn to a dramatic win in the 4xmile — the host school’s first win in that event since 1950 and its first championship in any of the meet’s marquee distance relays since 1974.

Now, with the 123rd running of the Penn Relays set to kick off in full Thursday — the same day that the NFL draft begins across town — Hatler is ready to add another wheel before graduating, along with fellow senior Nick Tuck.

“Last year was exciting to win the 4xmile, but I kinda felt like for the seniors last year, it was their win, it was their wheel,” said Hatler, who also helped the Quakers set a school record in last year’s distance medley relay. “I know Nick and I kinda have a little grudge here. We want our own wheel for ourselves our senior year. So we’re gonna come out and see what we can do.”

Although the USA vs. the World races Saturday to highlight the meet, the college relays are often the most exciting with wild sprints to the finish line occurring in front of packed Franklin Field crowds. Last year, in between Team USA races, then-senior Thomas Awad chased down two other runners in the 4xmile to give Penn the victory on national TV, before being mobbed by Hatler, Tuck and Keaton Naff. 

Hatler couldn’t quite see the track from where he was standing but had a feeling that Awad — one of the most accomplished athletes in Penn’s track & field history — would come through on the final lap of his Penn Relays career.

“You never bet against Tom at the end of the race,” said Hatler, who earlier this year cracked the 4-minute-mile barrier. “We kinda knew it was gonna happen.”

Few other people expected it because the host school hasn’t always been competitive in the college championships at Penn Relays. But another local school always is — Villanova.

And the Wildcats are glad to get some more competition from their Big 5 rival.

“It was thrilling for me to see it happen,” Villanova men’s track coach Marcus O’Sullivan said. “This is really the home school. We’re happy to be sharing the stress of Penn [Relays] every year with the real home school.”

As for his own team, O’Sullivan said the Wildcats are dealing with injuries so it may not be in top form for the men’s distance medley relay (Friday, 5:30 p.m.), men’s 4xmile (Saturday, 1:15 p.m.) and the men’s 4x800 (Saturday, 4:40 p.m.), the first two of which will be broadcast on NBC Sports.

But he touted the talent of redshirt freshman Logan Wetzel, among others, and seems ready to throw some youngsters into the fire.

“I always say Penn is a defining arena for kids to grow up,” said O’Sullivan, who ran the Penn Relays as a student at Villanova. “You really start to learn. You prepare a year for Penn. 

“My junior year, we were annihilated, lost everything, and it one of the most humiliating moments of my life because so much is expected of you and you drop the ball. I spent a whole year just waiting for Penn, just training for Penn. The year I made the Olympic team, I kid you not, running at Penn, winning at Penn, was way more important for me at that time of my life. That’s how big it is.”

Villanova women’s coach Gina Procaccio also ran the Penn Relays in college and has similar feelings about the significance of the meet. And she’s ready to lead her powerhouse teams to more championships in the women’s distance medley relay (Thursday, 5:30 p.m.), the women’s 4x1500 (Friday, 1:20 p.m.) and the women’s 4x800 (Saturday, 4:10 p.m.).

Those relay teams will be led by Angel Piccirillo, a fifth-year senior who redshirted last year, and junior Siofra Cleirigh Buttner — two of the best distance runners in the NCAA. But it won’t be easy for them as this year’s field will be stacked with the likes of Oregon and Stanford.

But no one has done better at Penn Relays than the Villanova women, who have won 14 DMRs all time, including four straight from 2012-2015.

“I’m not one to shy away from the competition,” Procaccio said. “I like to earn those wins.”