OKLAHOMA CITY – They went back and forth in a momentum-swinging, loser-go-home NCAA tournament Sweet 16 game that for most of Friday night felt like a heavyweight boxing match.
The No. 3 seed Washington women’s basketball team came out firing from firing from the perimeter and won the first period.
Then No. 2 Mississippi State countered with a relentless inside attack and took a nine-point lead into halftime.
Washington showed its championship resolve and regained a two-point lead at the end of the third period to set up what looked to be a fantastic finish in a thrill ride of a basketball game.
But in the fourth quarter, the Huskies couldn’t keep Teaira McCowan out of the paint and off the glass. And the 6-foot-7 sophomore center proved to be the difference in a 75-64 defeat that ended UW’s season at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“McCowan is a tough matchup, really tough matchup,” coach Mike Neighbors said. “She was very motivated. She got going, got really confident (and) started hitting some turnaround shots.
“We simply can’t do anything about that.”
McCowan scored the first 16 points in the fourth quarter for Mississippi State during a remarkable stretch that erased UW’s 50-48 lead and put the Bulldogs ahead 64-55 with 5:58 remaining.
“They (MSU teammates) said, ‘Tea, you got to dominate,’ ” McCowan said. “Just taking that in, listening to my teammates and knowing I had to step up to take my team further.
“That’s when I had the look in my eye like nobody can stop you. You have to do what your teammates are asking you to do.”
McCowan, who scored 20 of her career-high 26 points in the fourth, converted 12 of 18 shots in 29 minutes. She didn’t attempt a shot outside of the painted area.
“We kind of emptied the playbook for Tea,” MSU coach Vic Schaefer said. “We ran a lot of different things to get her down there. We wanted to get her to her spots where she’s really comfortable.”
With McCowan collecting 12 rebounds, including eight on the offensive glass, Mississippi State won the rebounding battle 49-34. The Bulldogs scored 25 second-chance points, while UW had eight.
“I didn’t do a very good job today,” said UW center Chantel Osahor, who finished with 17 points and 11 rebounds, for her 30th double-double – three shy of the NCAA single season record.
“She was the difference maker, McCowan was,” Osahor said. “She had some big baskets at the end. That was my fault.”
While McCowan scored seemingly at will on layups and putbacks, the Huskies began the fourth period missing five of their first eight shots and committed three turnovers to fall behind by 10 (68-58) with 4:40 left.
Kelsey Plum, UW’s brilliant star and the most prolific scorer in NCAA history, scored four straight points that cut MSU’s led to 68-62 with 3:16 remaining.
On four of the Huskies’ next five offensive possessions, McCowan blocked attempts from Plum, Hannah Johnson, Aarion McDonald and Osahor that ended their comeback bid.
McCowan, who had five of her personal-best six blocks in the fourth, anchored a stingy Bulldogs defense that held the Huskies to their second fewest points this season.
UW’s 64 points was 21 fewer than it scoring average. Mississippi State entered the game ranked 22nd in the nation while allowing opponents 56.2 points.
The Bulldogs didn’t shut down Plum, but they made her work for her 29 points. The 5-8 guard was 10 of 25 from the field, 3 of 8 on three-pointers and 6 of 7 at the line.
“They shadowed me with the big player,” Plum said. “They switched plays, hedged screens. Credit to them. They had a great defensive plan.
“I didn’t make shots throughout the game, which I usually do.”
Plum finished her record-breaking career with 3,527 – the most points in NCAA history.
“When I first came on campus, I had big dreams,” Plum said. “Dreams for our program. Dreams as an individual. A lot of them came true.
“So for that I’m very grateful.”
Plum and Osahor combined for 46 points, while no one else scored more than eight for the Huskies.
The lack of scoring support has been a common theme in the Huskies’ defeats. All six of their losses were against teams that advanced to the Sweet 16 and kept UW’s role players in check.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs relied on their superior depth – they used eight players – to wear down the Huskies in the end. Victoria Vivians scored 13 points off the bench and Blair Schaefer added 10 for Mississippi State (32-4), making its first trip to the Elite Eight.
Washington (29-6) ends the season two wins shy of returning to the Final Four in consecutive years.
UW seniors Plum, Osahor and Katie Collier finish their careers with a 98-41 record, which is tied for the third most wins in school history.
Along the way, they restored luster to a once-proud program and appeared in three NCAA tournaments while capturing a wheelbarrow full of records and awards.
“It’s hard now because we lost,” Osahor said. “But I’ve made sisters for life. … That’s the most important thing is the relationships.
“If that’s what I leave with, I’m happy about that.”
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