Morgan William (Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page)

Mississippi State hopes that the third time is the Bulldog charm when it comes to conference foe South Carolina.

DALLAS, TX - Mississippi State (34-4) will take on South Carolina (32-4) in the final game of the 2016-17 NCAA Women's basketball season. The entire campaign has come down to this and one team will take home the first women's basketball crown in school history. The SEC foes will square off for the third time this season with the biggest prize of all in the balance, the NCAA National Championship.

"I wasn't hired to bring you a top-25 basketball team, I was hired to bring you a top-10 basketball program," Mississippi State head coach Vic Schaefer said. "Teams come and go, but programs are here to stay. Our first step is to build a top-25 program, then take that to a top-10 program where year-in and year-out we are picked in the top 4 in the SEC and top 20 in the nation.

"We will have a top-25 recruiting class. That will be how it is and how it is done. But there is a process to that and it doesn't happen overnight."

Those were the words from Schaefer before he ever coached a game at Mississippi State. The former Texas A&M Secretary of Defense spoke those words back in June of 2012 not long after he put his first Bulldog squad through some off of the court preparations.

Two years prior to Schaefer's hire, Mississippi State reached the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in school history. Heading into the National Title game on Sunday, the Bulldogs have done it in back-to-back seasons with Schaefer at the helm.

Expectations for the Bulldogs were high in the pre-season, but even the Truest of the True Maroon would admit a berth in the 2017 title game was perhaps a bit too big of a dream.

The reality of the situation is that Mississippi State will take the floor in the American Airlines Center with a chance to be the #1 women's college basketball team in the country.

"We talked about, when we started this back in September, there were seven championships on our schedule," Schaefer said. "We won four of 'em. We've lost out on two, the regular season SEC Championship and the conference tournament championship. We were involved in both of them within a week. Now we've got a chance at the national championship."

The team the prevented the Bulldogs from winning the other two championships, South Carolina, will provide the opposition in Sunday's Final.

To say that the Bulldogs and Gamecocks are familiar with one another would be an understatement. The two have been watching each other all season in film study and in the SEC standings. The regular season title went down to the final week with the Gamecocks winning the SEC Championship outright on the final day.

"You can't go into the game thinking you can just do the same old things," South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said. "You got to give different looks. As far as player personnel, we know them. We know them extremely well."

The Bulldogs path to the final pairing began at home in Starkville in the tournament's first weekend. State defeated #15 seed Troy and #7 seed Depaul in the first and second rounds respectively.

The second weekend brought a win over #3 seed Washington in the Sweet Sixteen and an upset of top seeded Baylor in the Elite Eight.

On Friday night in the Final Four, the Bulldogs would knock off another #1 seed in four time defending champion and tournament top seed Connecticut. To win it all, State will have to vanquish a third #1 seed in as many games in the form of South Carolina.

The Gamecocks took their first tournament steps by winning a pair at home in rounds one and two over #16 seed UNC-Ashville and #8 seed Arizona State. The next weekend, South Carolina took down #12 seed Quinnipiac and #3 seed Florida State.

Despite struggling to find the bottom of the next in the first half on Friday, South Carolina outscored Stanford 42-24 in the second half to earn a spot in the tournament final.

Mississippi State enters the contest winners of five straight. The last loss for the Bulldogs came at the hands of the Gamecocks in the SEC Tournament title game in Greenville, South Carolina last month, 59-49.

Ironically, the first team to defeat the Bulldogs on the campaign was South Carolina who snapped a Bulldog program best 20 game winning streak to begin the season. Vic Schaefer's team is 10-1 on neutral courts this year, but one could argue that the loss in Greenville to South Carolina in the SEC tournament title game was, for all intents and purposes, a road game.

No matter the circumstances, the Gamecock ladies are 2-0 against their in conference foes from Starkville.

"Dawn (Staley) has put those kids obviously in some great positions to be successful," Schaefer said. "They play really hard defensively. That's the thing people don't give them credit for, or they should get more credit for, is, man, they guard your tail.

"When we walked out of the gym three weeks ago, four weeks ago, (we) scored four points in the fourth quarter, that will humble you in a hurry. That kind of led to some of the things we did differently.

"They really, really play you extremely tough. They're physical. I mean, they play the way that we do. If we'll play the way we typically play, we'll have a chance in the ballgame."

Following that disappointing loss in Greenville where the Bulldog scored a season low 49 points, Schaefer elected to shake up his line up. The team responded and has averaged over 87 points per game in the NCAA tournament.

Could the third time be the charm for the Bulldogs who are looking for the first major sports National Title in Mississippi State history? Only time will tell, but Bulldog fans are hoping for a little more Maroon magic and a chance to be the last one dancing when the lights go out on the 2017 college basketball season.

ESPN will handle the broadcast duties with programming scheduled to begin at 5 PM central. Mississippi State fans unable to make it to Dallas are welcomed at the official Bulldog watch party on the Mississippi State campus in Humphrey Coliseum.


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