March 8, 2009
Adam Minichino - [email protected]
NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- It''s all a number''s game now.
The Mississippi State women''s basketball has nearly nine days to wait and to wonder if it will be one of the 33 at-large teams that will participate in the 64-team NCAA tournament field.
Sixth-seeded MSU missed an opportunity to strengthen its case Friday night in a 63-58 loss to third-seeded LSU at the Southeastern Conference tournament at Alltel Arena.
Now the Lady Bulldogs (22-9) will have to hope their resume, which includes a Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) of 36 and a Strength of Schedule (SOS) 61 through games played Friday, is considered worthy by the NCAA tournament selection committee.
RPI and SOS are two factors the NCAA tournament selection committee uses to help determine the field.
MSU coach Sharon Fanning didn''t want to talk Friday night specifically about her team''s chances of earning its first NCAA tournament bid since 2002-03, but she likes her team''s resume. The Lady Bulldogs have highlight victories at Utah (RPI of 63), which is tied for first in the Mountain West Conference, against Vanderbilt in Starkville, and two wins against LSU in the regular season.
But MSU''s resume, which includes eight regular-season victories in the SEC, might work against it. Eleven of its 13 non-conference victories are against teams with RPIs of 150 or higher, including eight victories against teams with RPIs of 199 or higher.
LSU coach Van Chancellor, whose team earned its sixth-straight victory Friday night, didn''t want to talk about numbers and how they affected MSU''s NCAA tournament chances.
Chancellor preferred to use a common-sense approach.
"I don''t think there is any doubt in my mind that they''re an NCAA tournament team," Chancellor said. "The NCAAs is just like dieting. I will tell you how to have a successful diet. If it tastes good, spit it out. Let me tell you about the NCAAs, throw all of the resumes out, throw all of it out and say, ''Who do I not want to play in the NCAA playoffs?'' I am telling you right now, the Mississippi State Lady Bulldogs. I have had enough. I don''t want to see them or another year.
"They are one of the 33 best teams out there. I don''t go around spouting for the SEC unless I believe in it. I think Mississippi State is in."
Allison Hightower (game-high 23 points) helped make sure MSU didn''t earn its third victory in as many meetings this season against LSU (18-9). The junior guard, who was named first-team All-SEC earlier in the week, scored 17 of the Lady Tigers'' final 25 points to help them hold on.
"She has tried to carry them," Fanning said. "She seems to be an excellent leader for them. She wants the basketball to help them get it down the floor, and she wants the ball in the half-court game to be able to find a shot. I think she has helped them in many ways."
The performance was even more special considering LSU played without sophomore point guard Latear Eason, who suffered a neck injury in the first half and missed the final 25 minutes.
Another lackluster first half doomed MSU. The Lady Bulldogs shot 7 of 26 (26.9 percent) and trailed 27-21 at halftime. The effort marked the fourth time in as many games MSU shot 30 percent or less and scored 26 or fewer points in the first half.
"I feel our intensity and our focus early on were not where they needed to be, but I was very proud with they way we competed down the stretch," Fanning said.
Second-half comebacks against South Carolina and Alabama to end the regular season and against South Carolina in the opening round of the SEC tournament helped the Lady Bulldogs avoid upsets.
MSU almost made it four rallies in a row.
Trailing 44-28 with 12 minutes, 12 seconds remaining, MSU used a 19-6 run to cut the deficit to 50-47 on a drive by Alexis Rack (team-high 14 points).
LSU pulled away, but two free throws by Rack with 3:27 to play again cut it to three, 57-54.
A jumper by Hightower with three seconds remaining on the shot clock kicked the lead to 59-54. Following a free throw by MSU''s Donnisha Tate and a turnover by LSU, Rack airballed a 3-pointer than cut have cut the deficit to one.
Rack''s 3-pointer with 31.6 seconds left cut it to 61-58, but the Lady Bulldogs committed a turnover and missed a drive on their final two possessions.
"We don''t feel there is a cause for the slow stats. We just came out slow," Rack said. "I guess it is just a funk that we''re in and we didn''t find a way to get out of it."
Said senior forward Robin Porter," It is just our focus and we have to keep our intensity. Our focus is not there in the first half and we have to find it."
LSU also shot 14 of 23 (60.9 percent) in the second half and 51 percent for the game to deny MSU.
Other numbers worked against MSU. The Lady Bulldogs were 2 of 13 from 3-point range and had only seven assists to 15 turnovers. They also had 11 offensive rebounds but only nine second-chance points.
The result was another effort that included flashes of brilliance and intensity but not enough consistency to earn the Lady Bulldogs a victory that would have bolstered their resume.
"Hopefully we learn from this and we have another opportunity in the NCAA tournament to still try to reach our potential," Fanning said.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.