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South Carolina pulls away from Mississippi State to take home first women's hoops title

By Chad Conine, The Sports Xchange

DALLAS -- South Carolina fended off Southeastern Conference rival Mississippi State for the biggest prize in women's college basketball.

The Gamecocks led by as many as 14 points in the second half, then survived a Bulldogs charge to claim a 67-55 victory in the NCAA Tournament championship game on Sunday evening at the American Airlines Center.

In doing so, South Carolina (33-4), making its second Final Four appearance under head coach Dawn Staley, won its first national championship.

Staley lost in the Final Four twice as a player at Virginia, in 1990 and 1992. She guided the Gamecocks to the Final Four as their coach two years ago before they lost in the national semifinal.

But now Staley can add the net she cut down after winning the national championship to her three Olympic gold medals with Team USA.

"It means that I can check off one of the things that has been a void in my career," Staley said. "It's one of two opportunities that I saw women play when I was younger: national championship games and Olympics. Those were the things that I held near and dear to me when I was growing up."

21 PHOTOS
Best photos from Saturday's March Madness games
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Best photos from Saturday's March Madness games
GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 01: Nigel Williams-Goss #5 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs shoots against Maik Kotsar #21 of the South Carolina Gamecocks in the second half during the 2017 NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal at University of Phoenix Stadium on April 1, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 01: Chris Silva #30 of the South Carolina Gamecocks shoots against Przemek Karnowski #24 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs in the second half during the 2017 NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal at University of Phoenix Stadium on April 1, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Steppig - Pool/Getty Images)
GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 01: Przemek Karnowski #24 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs goes up for a dunk against Chris Silva #30 of the South Carolina Gamecocks in the second half during the 2017 NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal at University of Phoenix Stadium on April 1, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Steppig - Pool/Getty Images)
GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 01: Sindarius Thornwell #0 of the South Carolina Gamecocks shoots against Jordan Mathews #4 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs in the second half during the 2017 NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal at University of Phoenix Stadium on April 1, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 01: Zach Collins #32 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs shoots against Chris Silva #30 of the South Carolina Gamecocks in the second half during the 2017 NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal at University of Phoenix Stadium on April 1, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 01: PJ Dozier #15 of the South Carolina Gamecocks and Johnathan Williams #3 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs compete for a loose ball in the second half during the 2017 NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal at University of Phoenix Stadium on April 1, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 01: Maik Kotsar #21 of the South Carolina Gamecocks and Zach Collins #32 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs compete for a loose ball in the second half during the 2017 NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal at University of Phoenix Stadium on April 1, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 01: Nigel Williams-Goss #5 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs grabs a rebound against PJ Dozier #15 of the South Carolina Gamecocks in the second half during the 2017 NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal at University of Phoenix Stadium on April 1, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 01: Justin Jackson #44 of the North Carolina Tar Heels handles the ball against Jordan Bell #1 of the Oregon Ducks in the second half during the 2017 NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal at University of Phoenix Stadium on April 1, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Steppig - Pool/Getty Images)
GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 01: Theo Pinson #1 of the North Carolina Tar Heels shoots against Dylan Ennis #31 of the Oregon Ducks in the second half during the 2017 NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal at University of Phoenix Stadium on April 1, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Steppig - Pool/Getty Images)
GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 01: Isaiah Hicks #4 of the North Carolina Tar Heels defends Casey Benson #2 of the Oregon Ducks in the second half during the 2017 NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal at University of Phoenix Stadium on April 1, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Steppig - Pool/Getty Images)
GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 01: Joel Berry II #2 of the North Carolina Tar Heels and Jordan Bell #1 of the Oregon Ducks compete for a loose ball in the second half during the 2017 NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal at University of Phoenix Stadium on April 1, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 01: Justin Jackson #44 of the North Carolina Tar Heels goes up with the ball against Dylan Ennis #31 of the Oregon Ducks in the second half during the 2017 NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal at University of Phoenix Stadium on April 1, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 01: Jordan Bell #1 of the Oregon Ducks and Kennedy Meeks #3 of the North Carolina Tar Heels go for a loose ball in the second half during the 2017 NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal at University of Phoenix Stadium on April 1, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 01: Tony Bradley #5 of the North Carolina Tar Heels shoots against Tyler Dorsey #5 of the Oregon Ducks during the 2017 NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal at University of Phoenix Stadium on April 1, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Steppig - Pool/Getty Images)
GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 01: Dylan Ennis #31 of the Oregon Ducks drives to the basket against Nate Britt #0 of the North Carolina Tar Heels in the second half during the 2017 NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal at University of Phoenix Stadium on April 1, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 01: Justin Jackson #44 of the North Carolina Tar Heels shoots in the second half against Jordan Bell #1 of the Oregon Ducks during the 2017 NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal at University of Phoenix Stadium on April 1, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 01: Isaiah Hicks #4 of the North Carolina Tar Heels dunks in the first half against Kavell Bigby-Williams #35 of the Oregon Ducks during the 2017 NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal at University of Phoenix Stadium on April 1, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 01: Jordan Bell #1 of the Oregon Ducks and Kennedy Meeks #3 of the North Carolina Tar Heels go for a loose ball in the first half during the 2017 NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal at University of Phoenix Stadium on April 1, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Steppig - Pool/Getty Images)
GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 01: Jordan Bell #1 of the Oregon Ducks shoots against Theo Pinson #1 of the North Carolina Tar Heels in the first half during the 2017 NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal at University of Phoenix Stadium on April 1, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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The Bulldogs couldn't solve South Carolina, falling to the Gamecocks for the third time this season and the 11th-consecutive time overall.

But Mississippi State (34-5) can hold onto the distinction of being the team that ended Connecticut's 111-game winning streak and run of four-straight national titles as the Bulldogs prevailed in 64-62 in overtime over the Huskies during a Friday semifinal.

A'ja Wilson, who was named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player, powered the Gamecocks on both offense and defense as she finished with 23 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks. Guard Allisha Gray pitched in 18 points and 10 rebounds.

Guard Victoria Vivians led Mississippi State with 12 points, and guard Dominique Dillingham added 11.

South Carolina held Bulldogs guard Morgan William, the hero in Mississippi State's Elite Eight and national semifinal wins, to eight points on 2-of-6 shooting.

South Carolina was threatening to run away with the title before Mississippi State clawed back into the contest in the third quarter.

The Bulldogs grabbed momentum with a 9-0 run to slice into South Carolina's 14-point lead. William made a steal and layup to highlight the run, then forward Ketara Chapel hit a jumper that cut the Gamecocks' lead to 45-40 with 3:37 to go in the third quarter.

But Wilson and Gray made the key baskets South Carolina needed in the fourth quarter to keep the Gamecocks in the lead. They combined for baskets on back-to-back possessions in the middle of the fourth to restore an eight-point Gamecocks lead with 4:56 remaining, and Mississippi State never got back within six points.

"I just kind of knew that I needed to make an impact on the game," Wilson said. "That's my biggest thing when I play is 'How can I make my impact?'"

Wilson and Gray led the way as South Carolina won the rebounding battle, 40-27, and outscored the Bulldogs in the paint, 42-20.

"We don't usually win games when we don't win the points in the paint battle," Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said. "I thought (South Carolina was) really, really aggressive. Did a nice job of attacking us. We had a hard time with them off the bounce."

South Carolina stretched out a 13-point lead in the first half as it dominated the end of the first quarter and the beginning of the second.

The Gamecocks trailed by two before they went on a 19-4 run to take control.

Gray scored seven points during the surge as she consistently drove into the lane. Wilson helped fuel the run with a layup and a pair of free throws to give South Carolina a 25-16 lead with 6:49 remaining until halftime.

Guard Tyasha Harris went to the basket for a layup to cap the run and stake the Gamecocks to a 13-point margin.

"They just made a run and we weren't executing offensively," Dillingham said. "There's no other way to put it. We weren't executing offensively and we weren't putting the ball in the basket and we weren't getting stops."

But Mississippi State battled back despite foul trouble and a scoring drought of more than four minutes in the first half.

Reserve forward Chinwe Okorie hit a jumper from the free-throw line, then Dillingham, who played most of the first half with two fouls, drove for a basket. And Vivians made a shot to cut South Carolina's lead to nine.

Wilson and Gray each scored 11 to lead the Gamecocks in the first half. Wilson hit a free throw that put South Carolina ahead 36-26 at the break.

NOTES: The all-SEC national championship game between Mississippi State and South Carolinawas the sixth time two teams from the same conference met for the tournament title. It was the third time two SEC teams played in the championship game -- Tennessee vs. Georgia in 1996 and Tennessee vs. Auburn in 1989. ... South Carolina and Mississippi State were each making their first appearance in the national championship game. It marked the first time that two first-timers met in the tournament final since 2005 when Baylor defeated Michigan State. ... South Carolina leads Mississippi State 19-16 in the all-time series. The Gamecocks have a 10-game winning streak in the rivalry that dates to Mississippi State's last victory over South Carolina on Feb. 11, 2010.

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