-- It was what you would expect a matchup between the two best teams in the SEC to look like: thrilling, intense, momentum-shifting and exhilarating. Were there some mistakes? Of course. Some big makes but also missed shots? Sure. Some officiating issues for both sides to gripe about? Yeah.
But overall, it was an entertaining game for the Colonial Life Arena fans in Columbia, South Carolina, and the television audience. No. 5 South Carolina prevailed over No. 4 Mississippi State 64-61, and if you were looking for proof that the Gamecocks could be headed to Dallas in March, this game provided it.
Did the Bulldogs also appear to be a contender for what would be the program's first Final Four? Yes, especially in the first half. With their school-record 20-0 start on the line, the Bulldogs played with the kind of aggression that's especially needed on the road. But South Carolina, which trailed 35-28 at halftime, exposed a few concerns for Mississippi State, too, which isn't really a bad thing to deal with in January.
Of course, the defending SEC champion Gamecocks have things to address, too. Their effort wasn't quite there from the tip, and they seemed somewhat lackadaisical on the boards early on.
South Carolina and Mississippi State could meet again in the SEC tournament like they did last season. The Gamecocks won the 2015-16 SEC final 66-52, taking advantage of some of the Bulldogs' offensive weaknesses, along with their own size/rebounding edge. Those were things that UConn later exploited in dismantling Mississippi State in the Sweet 16, 98-38.
This is an improved Bulldogs team, though. Foul trouble and some tepid shooting from their guards were among the things that hurt them Monday. But losing by just three points in a loud, hostile environment against a team as good as South Carolina has to leave Mississippi State feeling pretty optimistic about what March might have in store.
The Gamecocks and Bulldogs were the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds, respectively, in the NCAA selection committee's first reveal of the top 16 seeds on Monday. Whether both end up as regional No. 1 seeds might depend in part on what each of them takes from Monday's game.
South Carolina's two biggest positives were the durability of forward A'ja Wilson, who matched her season high of 26 points, and the energy of Allisha Gray, whose hustle plays and offense were so critical to the Gamecocks' second-half comeback.
Somewhat concerning is that South Carolina center Alaina Coates took just five shots against Mississippi State, although she ended up with nine points and 12 rebounds. And Kaela Davis struggled from the 3-point line, going 0-for-6 on a 1-of-9 night overall. Like most shooters, she can be streaky, but she's still the Gamecocks' top threat from behind the arc.?And to her credit, she excelled at a tough defensive assignment Monday, guarding Victoria Vivians.
After missing two games with an ankle injury and then playing limited minutes in her return last Thursday against Ole Miss, Wilson definitely was in the spotlight Monday to see if she'd be back to her regular go-to self. She was, playing 38 minutes and making 10 of 13 shots, along with grabbing nine rebounds.
She is the Gamecocks' most elite weapon, the kind of player you must have in March if you want to make a title run. Wilson having this kind of game against a Mississippi State defense that can shut down --- or at least severely limit -- many top players was one of the most satisfying parts of the night for South Carolina.
And Gray is showing why she might be the ultimate X factor for the Gamecocks. She's a player who always seems committed to figuring out what's missing and what's needed for her team -- and then doing what she can to provide that. That was true during her first two seasons at North Carolina, and she has brought that same mentality to South Carolina after sitting out a transfer year.
Gray also played 38 minutes, finishing with 17 points and seven rebounds. And she was part of the defensive effort -- led by Wilson and Davis -- that held Mississippi State guards Vivians and Morgan William to a combined 6-of-27 shooting.
That stat was probably the most worrisome to the Bulldogs. The two juniors are the Bulldogs' top scorers, but they were held to a combined 16 points -- about 11 below their combined average.
Mississippi State had to feel pretty good, though, about its post play, other than the foul trouble that benched both Chinwe Okorie and Teaira McCowan. The two centers fouled out with a combined 14 points and 13 rebounds, while forward Breanna Richardson had 12 points and seven boards.
How will the Bulldogs respond to their first loss? They have a few days to reflect, then they're back home in Starkville on Sunday against Texas A&M, a team that has had its ups and downs but is tied for third in the SEC at 5-2.
It's a quicker turnaround for the Gamecocks, who travel to Georgia on Thursday and then host Tennessee in another Big Monday game on Jan. 30 (ESPN2, 6 p.m. ET).
South Carolina (17-1, 7-0) has lost only to Duke. The Gamecocks went undefeated in the SEC last season; they're 52-3 in league play since 2014.
South Carolina is the last plausible speed bump for No. 1-ranked UConn's winning streak before the NCAA tournament. Which is not to suggest the Huskies will lose there, either, but their dominance of the American Athletic Conference is essentially assured. The Feb. 13 game in Storrs, Connecticut, against the Gamecocks could be historic either way: possibly No. 100 in a row for the Huskies, or a major, confidence-boosting upset for the Gamecocks.
Admittedly, neither the Gamecocks nor the Bulldogs looked Monday as if they were really quite ready to challenge UConn. The Huskies execute so much better offensively and defensively than anyone else, and that's the standard that some team is going to have to try to match -- or at least come close to -- in order to keep UConn from a fifth straight NCAA championship.
But first things first: South Carolina is now in the driver's seat -- although the race is far from over -- for the SEC title. Mississippi State is going to be right there, though, giving the Gamecocks a run for their money. Just like they did Monday. And both teams have a shot at getting No. 1 seeds -- which would mean delaying a potential postseason matchup with UConn until the Final Four.