Mississippi State’s Morgan William looks back on the shot that changed women’s college basketball

Morgan Williams.0 - Mississippi State’s Morgan William looks back on the shot that changed women’s college basketball

There are buzzer-beaters, and then there are buzzer-beaters that take down UConn in the Final Four.

“It was really like the shot heard around the world,” Morgan William says. She’s reminiscing from her car in Orlando, Florida, where she’s been working for Pepsi in sales for the past year. Mentally, she’s back at the American Airlines Center in Dallas in 2017, where Robin Roberts is coming in the locker room to look for her: “Where’s Itty Bitty?”

That’s what happens when you make a buzzer-beater in overtime at the Final Four to vanquish one of the most dominant dynasties in sports history, breaking their 111-game win streak. It’s what happens when you’re 5’3 on a good day — hence the “Itty Bitty” nickname — and wind up on a basketball highlight reel that will be an ESPN mainstay for years to come. That’s what happened, in short, when William tossed up a jumper with one second on the clock in the Mississippi State Bulldogs’ semifinal matchup with the ever-daunting UConn Huskies — and it went in.

For women’s college basketball, it was a revolution.

“Sometimes I wanna say that I take responsibility for that — but it was a team effort so I say Mississippi State takes full responsibility for that,” William says, referring to the tempering of UConn’s dominance since she hit the shot. UConn has made it to the Final Four in the two seasons since, but not to the championship game. This season, the Huskies were slated to enter the tournament as a two-seed (for them, practically unheard of). “Women’s basketball is evolving, it’s growing,” William says. “You still think about UConn, you think, ‘Holy cow, we’ve gotta go play some all-stars’ — and while I wouldn’t say everybody’s not going to UConn, I feel like players are developing their games so we’re able to go out there and play them and not the name across their chests.”

William was a sensation in the days and months following that game. Roberts’ locker-room visit was the tip of the iceberg for the woman who compelled everyone to finally pay attention to women’s college basketball rather than assuming UConn would win. In Starkville, Mississippi, she’s a bona fide celebrity; even today in Orlando, she still gets recognized more often than she expects.

“I remember when I first came down here, somebody just stopped me and was like, ‘Is your name Morgan William? Oh, my God, it’s really you — I was at that game!’” she recalls. “Then he showed me a picture of us together. I was like, ‘I don’t remember that, but that’s cool.’”

William continued pursuing basketball after graduating in 2018, the year a devastating buzzer-beater from Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale killed her and the Bulldogs’ chance at a title in a distressingly poetic turn of events. She was invited to the Las Vegas Aces’ training camp that spring, where she worked with the team for about a month before being cut just before the start of the season.

“Honestly, I thought I made the team,” William says. “It was good feedback and whatnot, but …” She had a stress fracture in her shin that had been lingering since her sophomore year, so she went home to Birmingham, Alabama, to try to rehab it.

“It takes forever for that junk to heal,” she says. “I did everything: I had the surgery, I went to physical therapy. But it was three years later, and I was at a point where I felt like I would never be able to play basketball again without being in pain.

“It kind of takes the joy out of the game for you, and you’ve gotta pop pills. I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life either.”

William contemplated trying to play overseas, but between the salary, being far from home, and her lingering injuries she decided against it. “I was just like, I’m fine with putting the ball down,” she says. ”I just didn’t want to play basketball anymore. It wears and tears on your body, and I was ready for whatever was next.”

So she landed with Pepsi, where basketball is just part of her life instead of inescapable. William keeps up with the Bulldogs, of course (“We need to be more consistent,” she says, switching quickly into team leader mode), and occasionally hoops with a group of guys on Saturday mornings. “They underestimate me,” William says — but the way she says it makes it seem like that just adds to the fun.

For now, the 23-year-old is mostly enjoying her freedom from the rigors of being a top-tier athlete. “After being in college where everyone is telling you what to do, it’s kind of a breath of fresh air,” she says, laughing. “Like, ‘Lord, I can do what I want!’” And as refreshing as it is for her to live like the rest of us for a change, she still has the shot to remind her of what she’s already accomplished.

“People are never going to let me forget that shot,” she says, cheerfully. “It’s nice when I’m watching games, and I’ll see myself go across the TV — I’m just like, ‘Wow, that’s me!’ It’s great to be part of the history, you know?”

More broadly, William was a key member of the class that turned Mississippi State into a perennial contender — and that class’s biggest underdog. “They say I’m 5’2 but I’m going with 5’3 because that’s what I get when I measure myself,” she jokes. “To go out there and handle business and do it at the highest level … Mississippi State wasn’t on the map prior to that. Looking back on it, it’s like, we really did that. I’m proud to say I went to Mississippi State and changed the program around. I’m part of that legacy.”

For as long as the shot still gets airtime, William will be shorthand for triumph in the face of overwhelming adversity — especially for basketball’s undersized competitors. “That summer afterwards, everyone was like, ‘My point guard’s short, look at her. She’s just like Morgan William,’” she says. “But don’t try to be like me. Go be better than me. That’s what everybody always told me, so I just pass it on down.”

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