Morgan William has gotten used to life as a minor celebrity. It’s her jump shot she’s worried about these days.
So hours before Mississippi State’s shootaround on Monday, a day that ended with the Bulldogs defeating South Carolina, 67-53, in a rematch of last season’s women’s basketball national championship game, William walked into her team’s practice facility and took shot after shot, until she had made 10 attempts from seven spots on the floor. By the time the shootaround actually began for her teammates, William was drenched with sweat and downing a chocolate milk to get her through the next grind.
At the arena that night, she was out early, too, almost two hours before the game tipped off in front of 10,794 fans. She was still trying in vain to find the rhythm of her shot. Careful jumpers from predetermined angles. Free throws. Anything to rediscover the form that led to the most famous shot of her career: the pull-up jumper she made at the buzzer to beat top-ranked Connecticut in last season’s Final Four.
“I don’t know why, I feel like this year I’m missing wide open shots,” William said. “It’s all mental though. When I go shoot in the gym, I make a lot of shots. I get in the game, I just need to take my time.”
It would be reasonable to assume that William’s frustrations, which continued with a 2-for-6 effort on Monday, would mean that the Bulldogs had suffered as well. But the opposite has happened. The Bulldogs are ranked second in the Associated Press poll, and at 24-0 they are the only undefeated Division I team in the country this season besides mighty Connecticut (22-0). And they showed again Monday night that they are a better team than the one that defeated UConn on the way to the 2017 national championship game
“They’ve been surprising me,” Mississippi State Coach Vic Schaefer said. “I see them every day, so I know our faults. Sometimes I have to get past that, because everybody on the outside keeps telling me how good they think we are.”
That the Bulldogs have improved since last season is impressive, given last season’s accomplishments, which included not only a 41-point game from William, their 5-foot-5 point guard, on the way to the program’s first trip to the Final Four, but also, unforgettably, the victory that ended the Huskies’ 111-game winning streak.
Schaefer never treated that run like a destination. He benched four starters early in the Bulldogs’ N.C.A.A. tournament run and did the same to William again in the final, sitting her in favor of her backup, Jazzmun Holmes, for a large section of the championship loss to South Carolina.
A result is that every single Mississippi State player now understands that if she does not do what is expected at all times, then someone else will play.
“This isn’t anything new,” Schaefer said of his decision to sit William, a senior, in favor of Holmes again in the rematch against the Gamecocks on Monday. “This is the same thing I saw last year. It’s why she played in the game she played in a year ago and she went up there tonight and really led our team. Put us in a good position to have a chance to win. Both ends.”
The biggest leap forward this season, though, has come from center Teaira McCowan, a 6-foot-7 rebounding machine (13.3 per game) who provides extra possessions in droves, protects the rim and scores at high efficiency (19.3 points) through post-ups and put-backs.
Her ability to jump into various roles is part of what makes Mississippi State so dangerous. On Monday night against No. 7 South Carolina, she spent much of the night guarding Gamecocks forward A’ja Wilson, who is expected to be the top pick in the next W.N.B.A. draft. That freed her Bulldogs teammate Victoria Vivians to focus on lifting the team offensively; Vivians had 20 points by halftime.
The players also know — and perhaps more important, accept — their roles. That was why when Schaefer played Holmes over William for long stretches again on Monday — William finished with 16 minutes, even less time than the 23 minutes she played in last season’s national final — there was no explanation necessary, no relationship to repair.
“He did in the beginning of the season,” William said of Schaefer’s urging that she continue to shoot. “He always talks about good shot, great shot. He wants me to knock down my open-look shots that I take.”
Even as she struggles with her shooting percentage, which is 36.6 percent so far this season after she shot 46.3 percent last season, William said Schaefer had no opinion on the shots she did take. “He says you’ve just got to knock them down more,” she said.
William is simultaneously a big-game scorer and a comfortable facilitator. Through her shooting slump, which mirrors one she experienced during a similar period last year, she continues to run a Bulldogs offense that ranks second in the country, measured by points per possession.
At the moment, Mississippi State is in a position to earn a No. 1 seed in the tournament, and with that a chance to play the first two rounds at the Hump, a formidable home court when it is packed with more than 10,000 fans, as it was on Monday.
At some point, though, they may need William’s big-game brilliance again. She said this week that she would be ready. She plans to keep shooting — before, during and after games — until her slump ends.
“I like the big games because that’s when great players play their best and it’s exciting, it’s good basketball,” William said. “I guess we’re just used to these big games now.”