Morgan ‘Itty Bitty’ William is adjusting to life after The Shot that rocked UConn
Mississippi State junior knows her stepdad, who passed away three years ago, would be proud
The NCAA women’s semifinal game was tied with seconds left in overtime. Mississippi State point guard Morgan William had the ball in her hand and a decision to make.
Earlier, she had dribbled into the paint against the defending national champs, the University of Connecticut (with the superlative 111-game winning streak), and gotten her shot swatted by Gabby Williams, the Huskies’ 5-foot-11 All-American forward. William, dubbed “Itty Bitty” at the SEC tournament this year, is listed at 5-feet-5, but that’s a lie. She’s 5-feet-2 if she’s an inch.
Her stepfather, who taught her everything, taught her that for a small player the paint is a trap, so you’d better have a jump shot. So with only a second on the clock, William pulled up. Her 15-foot jumper hit the bottom of the net, beating the buzzer and causing the announcer to scream, “She got it!” and proclaim the 66-64 win “one of the great upsets in history!” Former Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott, now with the Dallas Cowboys, hopped up and down in hysterics.
William collapsed into the team dog pile before jumping up to launch herself at her coach. That basket changed William’s life.
Or, at the very least, it made it nigh impossible to go out for a quiet dinner in Starkville, Mississippi.
Before William even gets to her table at Harveys restaurant, a few minutes from campus, a stranger at the bar smiles and waves. William waves back.
It’s been just under a month since “The Shot.” The Mississippi State Bulldogs lost a disappointing NCAA championship game to SEC rival South Carolina 67-55 two days later, and most of the country has left their bracket memories behind. But in Northeast Mississippi, “The Shot” is still fresh and William, a 20-year-old junior, has been “just overwhelmed.”
The power is in the proportions. The shot beat the UConn juggernaut (Mississippi State had lost to the Huskies by 60 points in the Sweet 16 last year), with the longest winning streak in college basketball, in the Final Four, in overtime, at the buzzer, by the smallest player on the court. Hoop dreams don’t get any bigger.
Waiter Will Jacob approaches her table. “Are you Morgan William? First off, congratulations on that awesome shot. And secondly, our manager was wondering if it would be OK if we could take a picture with you or something,” he gushes, “because we think you’re really awesome!” William says thank you and keeps smiling.
“After the shot, I come to Starkville, back from Dallas, and, oh, man, once I get off the bus, it was fans everywhere,” William said. They mobbed her for pictures and autographs and hugs. She and head coach Vic Schaefer were the last to leave. Actress Gabrielle Union and NBA legend Magic Johnson tweeted their congratulations. At a spring football game a week later, somebody asked to take a picture with William, and when she looked up “it was like 10 people coming, and I was like ‘Catch me another time.’ ” She scrambled to leave as people rushed toward her with their phones raised. It was too much for William, who describes herself as shy until she gets to know you. “I didn’t want to be rude,” she says, “but I was like, ‘I gotta go!’ ”
That’s largely how it has gone since the game. People continuously come up to her. Some don’t want a picture. “They will just be like, ‘I just want a chance to say I’m proud of you,’ ” William says. “Some of them are just like ‘Oh, my God!’ ” On social media, a woman asked if William would play an hour of one-on-one with her daughter for her daughter’s birthday. Another girl asked if she would do a video singing Happy Birthday to her dad.
Guys challenge her to one-on-one games, sometimes calling out to her as she passes.
“That shot is going to be shown for a long time,” said Matthew Zimmerman, a professor in her sports sponsorship class. “I said that to her, but she doesn’t yet realize it will live forever. It’s a sports cliché, but she is the dragon slayer.”
William, a sports studies major, is trying not to get too unnerved by the attention while staying focused on her next goals: to get better in her senior season so she can make it to the WNBA. She was a 46 percent shooter, averaging 10.1 points, 2.1 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 2 turnovers per game for the 2016-17 season. “It’s cool,” she said of her new fame, but “I’m not pro. I haven’t done anything yet.” That bent toward humility is something she says she got from her stepfather, who died of a heart attack three years ago.
William scored a career high 41 points in the second-seeded Bulldogs’ Elite Eight victory against top-seeded Baylor. After that win, she broke down on camera during an interview. It was left to Schaefer to explain that the three-year anniversary of her stepfather’s death had been the day before, and she’d dedicated the game to him.
William has a tattoo of her stepfather’s favorite Bible verse, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” on her left side, and she prayed before the Baylor game. She prays before every game, but that game she prayed a lot and talked to her stepfather.
“I was just like, ‘Dada, be here with me. We’re fixing to go play Baylor. It’s some big girls out there. I gotta play smart — don’t go in the trees. Don’t do nothing crazy and get hurt.’ He always told me if you go out there and play timid and scared, then you’re going to get hurt. Just go out there and play hard, don’t hold nothing back,” said William.
“So I was like I’m fixin’ to go make history. I was looking in the mirror when I was talking. Then I walked out. If anybody had walked in there, they would have thought I was crazy.”
William, who is from Irondale, Alabama, just outside Birmingham, was 2 years old when her mother, Monica, a hairdresser, married Donnie Rory, an accountant whom William called Dada. He’s the one who first put a ball in her hand. Rory coached her in rec league, then built and coached an AAU team around her. He taught her never to say, “ ‘I did this.’ Because a lot of people contribute to your success,” William said. “I would see him say, ‘You? You mean everybody? Brothers and sisters, mom, me.’ ”
As a high school freshman, she once went 1-for-9 at the free throw line, and that made for a long drive home with Rory. “You know you lost that game,” she recalled him saying. “You can’t get a free throw to save your life.” He had a fix for that. “He said, ‘We’re going to make a hundred free throws every day.’ ” So every day, after every practice, she shot 100 free throws with her stepfather. For four years.
In the Baylor game, she made nine of 10 free throws. “When I missed that free, I was like he’s cussin’ me out right now,” William said. Rory would never tell her he was proud of her. He didn’t want her to get a big head and stop working, she said. But she knew it. “He would tell everybody else, and they would tell me.”
People doubted her in middle school and high school. They’d say, “Look at her, she’s so little. They’d think I’m a joke,” William recalled. It made her want to beat the odds.
William didn’t have a lot of big-name Division I schools recruiting her. There was the University of Alabama at Birmingham when she was in ninth grade. Later, there was Southern Mississippi, Missouri and other smaller schools. Some of the big SEC schools — Auburn, Alabama, Georgia — didn’t offer her a scholarship, William said. Her stepfather told her many places were holding out for a bigger guard. When she signed with Mississippi State in November of her senior year, she said, Rory “was the happiest man alive.”
Associate head coach Johnnie Harris came to Mississippi State from Texas A&M, where she and Schaefer had been assistant coaches during that team’s 2011 national championship season. Harris was key in recruiting William.
“She fit our system,” which is fast-paced with constant pressure, Harris said, sitting in her office and proudly showing off team pictures that look like they’re from a glamour magazine. “The only thing was that she was small. But I have seen Morgan more times than not, when the game is on the line in high school and at AAU, take over. Just absolutely take over. I used to have to say it to her, but now all I have to do is look at her. And she’ll be like, ‘OK, I know, it’s time for me to take over.’ ”
She called William’s shot a top 10 moment in all of sports. “I just think that shot gave hope to a lot of people, like if you work hard enough and you do the right things, listen to your coaches, follow the game plan … and they had to follow it to a T, then good things can happen,” Harris said.
Harris said their full-court press was the key to their success against UConn. “Other teams press, but they don’t press from the time you get in the gym until the time you leave,” Harris said. It’s not something you can prepare for in two or three days. South Carolina, which had beaten the Bulldogs for the SEC championship before beating them in the NCAA championship game, was used to it. UConn wasn’t.
In the end, Harris said, the shot was amazing because William “read it. In regulation, she went to the hole and the same player blocked her shot. So now she sees an opportunity to pull up, and she went hard and got her on her heels. She pulled up, and she had a short window and it was just perfect.”
Back at Harveys restaurant, the manager has made her way over to William to make sure everything is good, and to get that picture. “You’re my superstar, you’ve got to stay super-starring for me,” she says.
“I’ve never heard that one,” William says. A high school senior and an elderly couple ask William for pictures.
At the Mize Pavilion women’s basketball offices between classes the next day, William talks more about the hardwood in front of her. She counts her speed, her wingspan and her hops (she can jump 50 inches) among her biggest strengths. For her senior year, she wants to work on her floaters and on shooting 3-pointers better to give herself a stronger chance of making it to the next level. The shortest women to play in the WNBA, Shannon Bobbitt and Debbie Black, are both 5-feet-2. At 5-feet-3, Temeka Johnson was drafted in the first round by the Washington Mystics in 2005 and in 2009 won a WNBA championship with the Phoenix Mercury.
William says she knows WNBA coaches are going to be concerned about her height. “It’s some big girls in the league, Brittney Griner and all them big girls, but I’d be a great assist player. I don’t mind backing up and not scoring.”
When you ask her whether she ever wished she were taller, she says she used to, “a little bit.” She takes the opportunity to dispel some myths about human growth.
“They say if you sleep, you grow. That’s not true. I sleep a lot,” William says. Her brother, Kameron, a former track athlete for Middle Tennessee State University, put salt in his shoes. He’s 6-feet-1, “but I think he was just gonna grow anyway,” says William. “He was like, ‘Man, it works!’ But I was like, ‘No, it’s nasty.’ ”
As for the nickname, “It’s cool. I mean everybody knows that. Oh, Itty Bitty William, that’s what they say.” Then she gives one of those shy smiles that lights up her face. “They say how Itty Bitty can get buckets.”
Even if she could leave school early for the WNBA (she’s doesn’t meet the 22-year-old age requirement), she wouldn’t. “Dada always said the ball is gonna stop bouncing one day and we need to fall back on something, so I’ll need a degree.” William finishes her sports studies degree in December, and she’s thinking about graduate school. She wants to eventually own her own sports facility.
But she’s got time for that. First, there’s more basketball, and who knows about this whole fame thing.
“I have small young ladies, and they’re like, ‘You just make me feel so happy to be short again. And like, not just in basketball but in life,’ ” William says. “I guess I affected athletes and nonathletes, so I guess I’ll take it. My dad would be proud.”