February 27, 2009
Adam Minichino - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- The NCAA tournament selection committee need not be scared.
Its best course of action would be to forget the Mississippi State women''s basketball team''s first half Thursday night against South Carolina.
In a season filled with solid efforts and energetic performances against top-25 teams, Mississippi State''s first 20 minutes were disjointed, ragged, and uninspired.
Thankfully for Mississippi State coach Sharon Fanning''s team, Alexis Rack and Donnisha Tate combined to score all 19 of their points in the second half to spark MSU to a 58-41 victory before a Senior Night crowd of 1,546 at Humphrey Coliseum.
Before the game, the Lady Bulldogs recognized seniors Tate, Robin Porter, Lauren Roberts, and former Lady Bulldog player Heather Hollis.
A rousing national anthem sung by Hollis didn''t provide a spark.
Instead, MSU played the first half of its final regular-season home game without the emotion and enthusiasm that has highlighted its first 20-win season since the 2002-03 campaign.
The Lady Bulldogs reached the NCAA tournament that season and haven''t been back since, and that is something the players have focused on changing since the beginning of the season.
They know a first half like the one they played Thursday won''t help them realize that goal.
"We didn''t have any team defense, we weren''t communicating with each other, and I thought we were playing selfish basketball," Tate said. "We talked about it in the locker room that we needed energy. We started playing with each other and rotating the basketball and rebounding."
To get to the NCAA tournament, MSU (20-8, 7-6 Southeastern Conference) likely will have to win at Alabama (2 p.m. Sunday) and then win at least its first-round game in the SEC tournament on Thursday.
A win by MSU on Sunday would secure sixth place in the SEC and set up a rematch against South Carolina in the No. 6 vs. No. 11 game at 9 p.m.
A loss Sunday would complicate matters given that MSU lost to Arkansas and Georgia, the teams behind it in the SEC standings. Wins Sunday by those teams coupled with a loss by MSU would drop the Lady Bulldogs at least two spots in the SEC.
Fanning doesn''t want that to happen, which is why she stayed positive Thursday through her team''s haphazard effort. On at least two occasions Fanning clapped right after her team made unforced errors. She said she didn''t want to stress the negatives, especially when her players were trying to find their rhythm against a "scrappy" opponent."
"I don''t think we have reached any plateau of what we are capable of doing as a basketball team," Fanning said. "There have been some very good spurts, at home and on the road, but it is something we have to continue to step up with if we want to be playing in a few weeks where we want to be playing."
The efforts of Tate and Rack could play a big part in helping MSU reach that plateau.
Tate, a 6-foot-2 forward, is one of the Lady Bulldogs'' most spirited players. In the second half, she hit all four of her field goals (eight points) and had two blocked shots.
"I thought Donnisha Tate gave us a big lift off the bench," Fanning said. "Her energy just running to the rim and a couple of people getting assists to her and keeping things alive was important. I thought MKat gave us a lift off the bench. Those kids made a big contribution relative to the energy we needed."
Tate only had two points in a 15-4 run that turned a 29-28 lead into a 44-32 advantage with just over five minutes remaining. But her energy and willingness to mix it up in the paint sparked the Lady Bulldogs.
Tate said that mentality was missing in losses to Auburn and Tennessee.
"We had to get physical because they were real physical in the first half and we were kind of getting pushed around in the post area," Tate said. "We are not really coming to practice and practicing hard to make ourselves physical and that really cost us in the first half."
Rack, who along with starters Armelie Lumanu and Porter was scoreless in the first half, scored all 11 of her points in the second half. She finished 5 of 14 from the field (0 of 6 from 3-point range), but attacked more in the second half to help MSU pull away.
"I wouldn''t say we weren''t focused but we were discombobulated," Rack said. "We weren''t running the plays, we weren''t executing, we weren''t getting the defensive stops we needed."
Rack said the first 20 minutes were as disappointing as the first 20 minutes at home against Ole Miss. MSU trailed 38-31 at halftime of that game, and by as many as 18 points, before rallying for a 69-64 victory on Jan. 11.
She said all of the players spoke up in the locker room at halftime Thursday and encouraged everyone to raise their energy level.
"The second half was more focused on execution and defense," Rack said. "We got the defensive stops we needed and we rebounded and we came out with more intensity."
Sophomore guard Mary Kathryn Govero added nine points and seven rebounds in 24 minutes off the bench.
Chanel Mokango led the Lady Bulldogs with 13 points.
Lakeisha Sutton and Tonia Williams led South Carolina (10-16, 2-11) with 14 and 10 points, respectively.
The Gamecocks entered the game last in the SEC in scoring (59.6 points per game). After losing two of its top three scorers to season-ending injuries, coach Dawn Staley said her team doesn''t have the weapons to match up with a team like MSU for 40 minutes.
Still, South Carolina had a strong showing for a little more than 20 and took MSU out of its comfort zone.
"We have a tendency (to make teams look uncomfortable) throughout spurts, we just don''t have enough depth to keep it going," Staley said.
n NOTES: Rack''s 0-for-6 effort from 3-point range snapped a string of 23 consecutive games in which she had made a 3-pointer. ... Porter had four points, five rebounds, and two steals in 29 minutes, while Roberts didn''t score in four minutes. ... MSU had a 38-20 edge in points in the paint.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.