February 9, 2009
Adam Minichino - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- Chanel Mokango''s smile lit up the media work room.
The junior college transfer was understandably pleased Sunday after playing a key role in the Mississippi State women''s basketball team''s 65-55 victory against LSU before a crowd of 1,454 at Humphrey Coliseum.
But Mokango''s biggest contribution didn''t show up on the final stat sheet.
With 8 minutes, 36 seconds remaining in the game, Mokango recorded a first: She slid over to take a charge on Katherine Graham.
"I was so happy for that," Mokango said. "That is my first time (at MSU) taking a charge."
Mokango''s willingness to take a charge is just the latest example of her maturation and understanding of how tough she has to be to play in the Southeastern Conference.
Classmate Armelie Lumanu, who played two years at Southeastern Illinois College with Mokango and Rima Kalonda before transferring to MSU, has made similar progression. The junior guard might have had only seven points, but she added a career-high 10 assists and six rebounds in a career-high 38 minutes to help MSU improve to 18-6 and 5-4 in the SEC.
Mokango and Lumanu have learned so much in 24 games. They arrived at MSU with the potential to make the Lady Bulldogs a more athletic and deeper team capable of making a run at the NCAA tournament.
Their play, like that of the team, continues to improve and gives many reason to believe MSU is in position to earn its first NCAA bid since 2002-03.
"The big thing with Chanel has been the physical part," MSU coach Sharon Fanning said. "We have seen her taking charges in practice, we have seen her going after rebounds aggressively. The next thing you''re going to see her do that we have got to have is when she got a great rebound and she didn''t finish strong. It is finishing strong. She is going to have to be tough and strong."
Four games ago, Mokango''s mood was different after a loss to Arkansas.
The junior college transfer wasn''t too pleased after a nine-point effort left her saying she felt she let her teammates down.
On Sunday, Mokango''s smile resembled one from a child who had just done something to please her parent.
"I have learned how to be tough and how not to let anyone affect my game," Mokango said.
Lumanu also has worked hard to please. She has become more aggressive in SEC play, has extended her shooting range, and has sharpened her ability to spot teammates in scoring position.
"I think she is seeing a little bit better -- when can I go to the rim -- and she did that and got to the free-throw line," Fanning said. "She does a good job of getting people the basketball where they need it and when they need it.
"She is making people around her better. That is what a good leader does, that is what a great players does, that is what a point guard does."
Lumanu''s ability to play point guard has allowed Rack to move to the wing, where she is a dangerous weapon from 3-point range. Rack delivered Sunday, going 3 of 7 from behind the arc and scoring a team-high 22 points.
Rack, who assumed point guard duties after senior guard Marneshia Richard wasn''t able to return from offseason knee injury, said Lumanu and Mokango have made significant strides.
"They have grown up a lot," Rack said. "In junior college, they probably were used to doing whatever they wanted. In the SEC, you have to play as a team. They have really grown and matured. They are making great decisions. Chanel is stepping up rebounding, and Armelie is rebounding and penetrating, everything."
The maturation of Mokango and Lumanu wasn''t lost on LSU coach Van Chancellor. Lumanu hit the game-winning shot in the teams'' first meeting this season in Baton Rouge, La. She didn''t need those heroics Sunday, but Chancellor felt she was even more impressive.
"I thought she did a great job of driving and dishing and playing," Chancellor said. "She has changed the team. There is no question in my mind.
"I thought the other kid who didn''t play much at our place helped change the game, No. 10."
Mokango was poked in the face and played only nine minutes in MSU''s 38-36 at LSU on Jan. 22. This time, she made a difference on both ends with 15 points, five rebounds, and four blocked shots in a career-high 37 minutes.
Fanning said Mokango, Lumanu, and Kalonda had big adjustments to make from junior college to MSU. She said Mokango and Lumanu continue to adjust to the level of play in the SEC and to play smarter and with more focus.
The same can be said for the Lady Bulldogs.
Coming off a 66-61 win against No. 20 Vanderbilt on Thursday, MSU used an aggressive defense to build leads of 16-2 and 27-9. The Lady Tigers went through droughts of 5:25 and 7:48 without a field goal. They shot only 23.1 percent (6 of 26) and trailed 27-13 at halftime.
"They have an underappreciated defense," Chancellor said. "Their defense today was better (than the first meeting). They do a great job of going from zone to man. They look like they have seven players players out there. They are long-armed (with Grimes, Porter, and Lumanu) with (Mokango) inside. They get in the passing lanes, they deflect you, they bump you, they don''t allow you anything easy."
Fanning''s biggest disappointment was the team''s loss of focus when the game became physical. The Lady Bulldogs also lost track of Andrea Kelly, who tied a career-high with five 3-pointers en route to a career-high 23-point outing.
Kelly helped LSU (12-9, 5-4) close to 10 points twice. Her 3-pointer with 57 seconds remaining made it 61-53, but Rack sealed the deal by hitting 4 of 4 free throws.
"We started out the last game against Vanderbilt like that, and we felt like it gave us a big boost," Rack said. "We just wanted to come in and do the same thing. We felt like it helped us out a lot, and it did tonight, too."
n NOTES: The victory helped MSU secure its first series sweep of LSU. ... Senior forward Robin Porter had eight points and 11 rebounds. She needs seven points to reach 1,000 for her career. ... Junior forward Tysheka Grimes earned her second consecutive start. She scored eight points, had four rebounds, and made three steals. ... The loss dropped Chancellor, a MSU graduate, to 39-3 all-time against the Lady Bulldogs. Chancellor did most of that damage as coach at Ole Miss. He is 2-2 against MSU as LSU''s coach.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.