McCowan's perfect night carries Bulldogs to Elite Eight

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- As the shot clock wound down in the first half Friday, Teaira McCowan had to toss up a shot.

"Whoops," she thought, "that's an air ball."

But it swished.

She turned to head down court, and looked at Mississippi State teammate Victoria Vivians as if to say, "Uh, wow, that went in?"

"We just smiled, and she gave me a high-five," said McCowan, the Bulldogs' center who just had that kind of night in leading top-seeded Mississippi State past No. 4 seed NC State 71-57 in the Kansas City Regional semifinals.

McCowan tied an NCAA tournament record for most field goals without a miss, shooting 11-for-11 for 24 points, with 15 rebounds and 4 blocked shots. McCowan, an espnW first-team All-American, had her 26th double-double of the season.

The next team to try to stop her: UCLA. The No. 3 seed Bruins beat second-seeded Texas 84-75 in Friday's second semifinal, advancing UCLA to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1999. Jordin Canada, a native of Los Angeles, was just 3 years old back then. UCLA didn't reach the Sweet 16 again until Canada's sophomore season with the Bruins, in 2016.

That year, the Bruins lost to Texas in the regional semifinals. UCLA returned the favor Friday, led by Canada's 22 points and eight assists. She also helped force Texas into 21 turnovers, and the Bruins scored 31 points off of those.

"Give UCLA credit and Jordin Canada credit for the way she managed the basketball team," Texas coach Karen Aston said.

Indeed, a lot of credit goes to Canada, senior teammates Monique Billings and Kelli Hayes, and coach Cori Close for getting UCLA back on the national stage. Close spent 18 seasons as an assistant coach at UCLA, her alma mater UC Santa Barbara and Florida State before taking over the Bruins in 2011.

She's one of the coaches who have helped elevate the Pac-12 as a whole from a conference mostly dominated by Stanford to one that now has three teams -- UCLA, No. 6 seed Oregon State, and No. 2 seed Oregon -- still in the hunt for the Final Four. The Beavers knocked out No. 2 seed Baylor in the Lexington Regional semifinals Friday, and the Ducks face No. 11 seed Central Michigan in the Spokane semis Saturday (ESPN, 6 p.m. ET).

"The Pac-12 makes you a better coach," Close said, "it makes you a better team."

UCLA might need its best game of the season on Sunday (ESPN, 7:30 p.m. ET), though, against the Bulldogs, who pulled away in the second half against NC State. The 6-foot-7 McCowan entered the game shooting 60.6 percent from the field, and she has had crazy-good shooting games earlier this season, including 9-of-10 versus Georgia State and 12-of-13 versus Mississippi. But perfection was pretty sweet, especially as that puts her in NCAA tournament lore.

St. Joseph's Terry Carmichael was also 11 of 11 from the field; that came in 1985 in the first round, strangely enough also against NC State. And only three players in NCAA tournament history have shot 10 of 10.

"Getting in the record books is exciting because when I get older, I'll look back on it," said McCowan, the junior in an otherwise all-senior starting lineup for the Bulldogs. "It will be an honor for me. I'm basically shocking myself this year."

Maybe so, but if you watched her progress last season -- including a spectacular game in the Sweet 16 against Washington when she had 26 points, 12 rebounds and 6 blocked shots -- you probably aren't shocked by what she has been doing. McCowan has become a dominant force and can wear down opponents with her strength. NC State, no slouch of a team in the paint, acknowledged that.

UCLA has faced the likes of Baylor's 6-7 Kalani Brown and Oregon State's 6-5 Marie Gulich this season, so the Bruins know what to expect in facing McCowan. UCLA forward Billings, who had 17 points and eight rebounds Friday, is smaller than McCowan at 6-4, but has a lot of speed.

"I'll try to use my advantage against them," Billings said. "I like to run. Tonight was a track meet, and I plan on having another one Sunday night."

Of course, McCowan moves very well, too, and Mississippi State made it tough for the Wolfpack to execute offensively. NC State coach Wes Moore compared the Bulldogs to "piranhas" because of the way Mississippi State players would converge on a Wolfpack player whenever she made the mistake of picking up her dribble.

Moore meant that as a compliment, and Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer would take it as such. He has always been known as a defensive whiz, but this season's team is the best he has had on the offensive end.

Friday, along with McCowan's can't-miss game, Mississippi State got 14 points from Vivians, 13 and eight assists from Morgan William, and 12 from Roshunda Johnson. Vivians was also a key defensively as she held NC State's top scorer, Chelsea Nelson, to five points on 2-of-13 shooting, plus three rebounds.

"She's a double-double machine, and my focus was trying to deny her the ball," Vivians said. "I feel like I contested her on every shot, and did a pretty good job."

And as for McCowan, Vivians said, "I know when she's feeling it, and when I have the opportunity to throw the ball into her, I'm throwing it. Every opportunity she had tonight to score, she scored. And she was good on the defensive end, too."

Mississippi State will be trying to make its second consecutive trip to the Final Four; the Bulldogs last year, of course, upset UConn in the national semifinals before falling to SEC rival South Carolina in the championship game.

UCLA has never made the Final Four in the NCAA tournament era, which began in 1982, but won the 1978 AIAW title. Sunday's regional final will be the first meeting between Mississippi State and UCLA, although the teams played a preseason scrimmage in 2016.

"Vic does such a great job, and his defense has always been spectacular on the perimeter," Close said. "For him to add a rim protector like McCowan ... can we hit enough jump shots? It's going to be very important that we not only chase them off the 3-point line, but we control possessions and rebounds. That's how we can get out and use our speed."