March 5, 2009
Adam Minichino - [email protected]
The second season begins today.
All season, the Mississippi State women''s basketball team has talked about living up to its expectations and potential and earning a return trip to the NCAA tournament.
Starting at 9 tonight, sixth-seeded MSU can take the first step toward guaranteeing its goal when it takes on 11th-seeded South Carolina in the first round of the Southeastern Conference tournament at Alltel Arena in North Little Rock, Ark.
MSU (21-8, 8-6 SEC) defeated South Carolina 58-41 last Thursday in Starkville. The Lady Bulldogs scored only 20 points in the first half of that victory.
MSU then closed the regular-season with another lackluster effort at Alabama. The Lady Bulldogs trailed the last-place Crimson Tide nearly midway through the second half before rallying to pull away for a 67-49 victory.
Despite the uneven performances in the past two games, MSU is in the same position as eight other teams: Win four games in four days and it will earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
MSU coach Sharon Fanning isn''t looking that far ahead. Her only focus is tonight''s game.
"We have to be ready to think, to pay attention to details, and to concentrate and to understand what we''re talking about relative to offensive and defensive things," Fanning said. "The more we play the better we should be able to get. Hopefully (today) we''ll take a step in the right direction."
MSU practiced Tuesday in Starkville and left Wednesday afternoon for Arkansas. The team practiced at Alltel Arena later Wednesday afternoon to prepare for the rematch against the Gamecocks (10-17, 2-12).
Fanning said it doesn''t matter that the Lady Bulldogs will play the Gamecocks for the second time in eight days.
"We have to be ready at that particular time and, hopefully, we will do our job and we play with energy and we execute," Fanning said.
MSU struggled in both of those areas in the first half against South Carolina and Alabama. But increased intensity on the defensive end sparked victories in both games.
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley agrees with Fanning that it might be easier for a team to face an opponent again so quickly. She said matchups and strategies still will be fresh for her team, but that doesn''t mean her players will be able to execute them any better because the Lady Bulldogs will present a challenge.
"I think Mississippi State is a dark horse in the SEC and they''re capable of winning it all," Staley said. "Unfortunately we''re playing them (tonight). Our challenge will be to attack the basket, which I thought we did well in the first half of our (first) basketball game. We relied on a lot of jump shooting in the second half. We have to put a complete game together and make them play on both sides of the basketball."
Junior guard Alexis Rack, who Tuesday was named first-team All-SEC, led MSU with 19 points against Alabama. She said the Lady Bulldogs had a spirited practice Tuesday and are in position to deliver a more complete effort.
"I think we''re where we need to be," Rack said. "We came out Tuesday and practiced hard, and going into the tournament we feel good. We just need to play for 40 minutes consistently."
If MSU wins tonight it would advance to face third-seeded LSU at 9 p.m. Friday. MSU swept two meetings with LSU in the regular season. But the Lady Tigers closed the regular season with five consecutive victories to strengthen their case for a bid to the NCAA tournament.
MSU beat LSU 65-55 on Feb. 8 in Starkville and 38-36 on Jan. 22 in Baton Rouge, La.
LSU might need a victory against MSU to secure a trip to the NCAA, or MSU might need another victory against a team with a high RPI and Strength of Schedule (SOS) to bolster its resume. LSU has an RPI of 23 and the ninth-best SOS, according to collegerpi.com.
MSU''s RPI is 37 and its SOS is 66.
Those numbers won''t help MSU tonight or Friday if it advances.
"We''re real confident with our team, and not just because of the opponent we''re playing or who we have beaten or the side of the bracket we''re on" Rack said. "We''re confident in our team and we think can (win the SEC tournament)."
MSU, which has the third best record in school history, will try to match its school-best 24-8 record set by the 1999-00 team and the 2002-03 squad. It has played in the SEC tournament title game only once. Tennessee beat MSU 70-67 in 2000 in Chattanooga, Tenn. Four-time All-SEC performer LaToya Thomas was a freshman on that team.
While that team had plenty of senior leadership, especially in the backcourt, this season''s Lady Bulldogs have several players -- including junior college transfers Chanel Mokango, Armelie Lumanu, and Rima Kalonda -- who will be in for an experience they never will forget beginning today.
Fanning said the key will be not to look at having to win four games in four days.
"Chanel asked when the tournament goes and I told her Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday," Fanning said. "She said, ''Oh.'' I told her you just have to think about Thursday night and we will go from there and continue to play."
MSU has lost in the first round of the SEC tournament the past four seasons.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.