By Adam Minichino
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Morgan William is built for games like this.
Even though William has slipped to fifth on the Mississippi State women’s basketball team in scoring this season, opponents risk leaving her open at their peril.
William proved that to be true again Saturday as she had a hand in her team’s final 10 points of the first half to help turn the tide and push No. 1 seed MSU to a 70-55 victory against No. 5 seed Texas A&M in the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference tournament at Bridgestone Arena.
“I feel like they were giving me the basketball and I can attack any time I wanted to, so that’s what I did,” William said. “I took advantage of it. They weren’t going to foul me. If they fouled me, I was going to knock down the free throws, so it was a win-win situation.”
The victory helped MSU (32-0) secure its third-straight appearance in the championship game of the SEC tournament. MSU will play No. 2 seed South Carolina, which defeated No. 3 seed Georgia, at 3:30 p.m. today (ESPN2). The winner will earn the SEC’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
MSU, which won its first SEC regular-season title this season, will look to win its first SEC tournament title after losing to South Carolina the last two seasons.
“I’m just awfully proud of my team, my kids,” MSU coach Vic Schaefer said. “Texas A&M came out and just absolutely punched us and floored us, and I was just really proud of how our kids responded.”
Victoria Vivians scored a team-high 22 points, while Roshunda Johnson added 13. Teaira McCowan had six points, 13 rebounds, and four blocked shots.
But William helped MSU punch back after Texas A&M was the aggressor for most of the first half. The Aggies led 18-15 after the first quarter and had 11 offensive rebounds in the first 20 minutes. William helped right the ship in a span of 2 minutes, 54 seconds at the end of the half. William found McCowan on a layup after McCowan beat Khaalia Hillsman down the court. William then came up with a steal near midcourt when Chennedy Carter lost possession of the ball and didn’t move to retrieve it. William stepped in and took control and raced the other way for a layup.
“I was just trying to guard her, put pressure on her,” William said. “When she lost the ball, I didn’t hit it, so I said I might as well go get it and she’s not going to foul me going to lay it up, so that’s what I did.”
William added a layup and a jump shot from the free-throw line and then pushed the issue and found Chloe Bibby for a jump shot that gave MSU a 36-26 lead with 41 seconds left in the quarter.
Texas A&M (24-9) cut the deficit to 38-33 on a 3-pointer and a jump shot by Carter (game-high 27 points), but Vivians followed with three-straight 3-pointers and Johnson added another to kick the lead to 50-35. Texas A&M trailed by at least 14 points the rest of the way.
Vivians, who had her 15th game with 20 or more points, said William gives the offense an added dimension when she is aggressive and attacking the basket.
“It adds another scorer on the court,” Vivians said. “We already have four, and when she’s being aggressive, that’s five, and I feel like we’re unstoppable. Like I tell her to go score all the time.”
Texas A&M coach Gary Blair pointed to the 4:40 mark of the second quarter when Carter picked up her second foul as a key. Carter urged Blair to keep her in the game with the score tied at 24, but he opted to take her out. He put her back into the game with 2:59 left, but William still was able to take over.
William’s effort was her 11th double-figure scoring game of the season. She did it by matching her season-high of 33 minutes she set against Oregon on Dec. 13, 2017, in Starkville.
More importantly, William, who entered the game averaging 7.1 points per game, had five assists and zero turnovers.
“Morgan is just a winner,” Blair said. “I asked her before the game when they were warming up, I said, ‘Morgan, are you going to go to try to play at the next level?’ She said, ‘If they have me?’ ” Blair said. “That’s how humble that kid is. And they will have her because she knows how to make a team work.
“Morgan was very good today. … She penetrated on us, hit a couple of tough shots, and then when we got into foul trouble it was like a turnstile down there. We just opened up the flood gates and let them drive right, shoot a layup, and that got a little bit old.”
It wasn’t old for Schaefer, who watched William take over and score 41 points in a victory against Baylor last season in the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament. He also had a front-row seat when she elevated for the game-winning shot that vanquished four-time reigning national champion Connecticut in the national semifinals, so he knows William is capable of doing anything the Bulldogs need.
“Morgan has adapted to our team,” Schaefer said. “This year’s team has more scoring options, so it takes a little pressure off of her. When teams do guard her a certain way, she knows she can have a lot of success.
“Her mid-range shot was good today. I thought she ran our team extremely well.”
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.