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Final Four notebook: Mississippi State out for unlikely revenge

DALLAS, Texas -- As much as basketball fans, and Mississippi State women's hoops fans in particular, might want to see the Bulldogs challenge the Connecticut women to a close game in Friday's national semifinal, there's just no escaping recent history.

Last season, the Huskies cruised to their fourth consecutive national championship, winning each of their 2016 NCAA Tournament games by at least 29 points. But no game was more lopsided in that stretch than Connecticut's 60-point victory over fifth-seeded Mississippi State in the Sweet 16.

It still stings Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer, whose Bulldogs (33-4) play the Huskies (36-0) in the late game on Friday at American Airlines Center.

"It was a humbling, embarrassing experience for all of us," Schaefer said about the 98-38 loss. "I think that's the big thing you learn is the speed of the game. Let me tell you, this (Connecticut) team is no different. I know the names have changed with some of them. The team is no different. Great chemistry. Great defensive team. Great offensive chemistry. Great skill sets. They are fast."

As was to be expected, Huskies coach Geno Auriemma downplayed the lopsided victory the last time Connecticut faced Mississippi State.

"There's nobody on this team right now that had anything other than 'I was at that game' to do with that score," Auriemma said. "If you watch that game, (Breanna Stewart) looked like an NBA player playing against high school kids. Moriah (Jefferson) was so much better than anybody on the floor. And (Morgan) Tuck just dominated long stretches of the game. So the score was like 30-4 at the end of the first quarter. I think (Katie Lou Samuelson) had one bucket. I don't think Kia (Nurse) had any. The other guys didn't even play."

Auriemma said that would be a point of emphasis as the Huskies practiced leading up to Friday's contest.

"If they think they had anything to do with that win, they're going to be reminded today, no, they didn't," Auriemma said. "This is not the same Mississippi State team we played. The turnaround they've made offensively has been remarkable. They're still the same defensive team that they were. And we're not the same team by any stretch of the imagination. If those three seniors were here, I would have a tough time convincing them. But it won't be tough with this team."

The Mississippi State players said they used last season's humbling loss as motivation before this season even started.

"Even walking in the weight room, our strength coach has '60' on, like, the window," Mississippi State guard Victoria Vivians said. "We see it every day. It didn't leave our heads at all."

We meet again

The first two times Dawn Staley tried to beat Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer were at the Final Four when Staley was a player.

VanDerveer's Stanford team defeated Staley's Virginia squads in the 1990 and 1992 Final Four and the Cardinal went on to win the national championship both times.

"You know, the emotions, as I reflect on participating in the Final Fours, not being able to win a national championship, is the thing that fuels me as a coach, you know, to check that box off," Staley said. "Fortunately I've been around some great players to get us back at this point to compete for a national championship. Hopefully our day has come."

After facing each other, Staley played on Team USA for VanDerveer when she was the national team's head coach. The two teamed up to claim a gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

They developed a relationship as Staley moved into coaching and communicated earlier this week.

"I texted her 'congratulations' after the Florida State win (in the Stockton Region final)," VanDerveer said. "I said, 'I have just one problem, I can't cheer for you on Friday night.'"

Still just sisters

Now-famous women's college basketball sister act Karlie Samuelson of Stanford and Katie Lou Samuelson of Connecticut reunited during Final Four team activities on Thursday night in Dallas.

Karlie's Cardinal faces South Carolina in the first semifinal Friday, followed by Katie Lou's Huskies versus Mississippi State in the late game.

Karlie Samuelson, the older of the two, participated in Stanford's press conference Thursday and said she and her younger sister have kept up their normal interactions and haven't discussed a plan if they face each other in the national championship game on Sunday.

"We're texting freely, of course," Karlie Samuelson said. "We're talking. Obviously, if we both win, we're probably going to focus just on the game. Haven't thought about that too much. Really just focusing on each other's games this Friday."

So sayeth A'ja

When asked during Thursday's press conference what she has learned from South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, Gamecocks forward A'ja Wilson turned philosophical.

"What do you always say?" Wilson asked Staley. "When you give something to the game, the game always gives it back to you."

To which Staley replied, "The game is a gift."

And Wilson continued, "Yeah, the game is a gift. You get what you put in. It's going to return what they think you deserve."

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