February 14, 2011 8:58:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- The focus and toughness to win in the Southeastern Conference was on display Sunday at Humphrey Coliseum.
Unfortunately, the Mississippi State women''s basketball team had to watch as South Carolina played with the poise and tenacity it takes to contend in one of the nation''s toughest conferences.
Ieasia Walker scored 16 points as South Carolina shot 55.2 percent in the second half to rally for a 60-53 victory before a crowd of 2,480.
"We have to be tougher," MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said. "I felt like if we matched their energy, which we did, that it would come down to our focus and execution, and when the game got on the line we weren''t able to have that focus and execution on two or three possessions that were critical to us."
MSU (10-14, 2-10 Southeastern Conference) appeared to be in control, leading 42-34 with 11 minutes, 8 seconds remaining. The Lady Bulldogs were riding a strong game from junior point guard Diamber Johnson and were playing relatively mistake-free basketball.
Things unraveled down the stretch, though, as the Gamecocks (15-10, 7-5) turned up the defensive intensity and received six points from Walker and Charenee Stephens in the final 10:44 to earn their third win in a row.
MSU hurt itself by going 8:18 without a field goal late in the second half. A three-point play by Mary Kathryn Govero pushed MSU''s lead to 45-39 with 9:36 to play. But the Lady Bulldogs went the next 4:56 without a point. They managed only four free throws until Govero hit a jump shot in the lane off an inbounds pass from Johnson that cut the deficit to 57-51 with 1:18 to go.
"They scored and we didn''t get stops," Fanning-Otis said. "That led, maybe, to our lack of focus just a little bit. But you still have a couple of minutes and it is a time-and-score game and you have to know am I attacking, I have to make layups, I have to make free throws, I have to get the ball in position to take a great shot, but I have to make a stop at the other end. I fee like at that point we started questioning a little bit and doubting. We just didn''t make the plays."
One sequence in that stretch epitomized the little things that turned the tide. Leading 54-49, Walker pushed through contact with Johnson and converted a driving layup from the right wing and was fouled. Stephens rebounded the missed free throw and added 1 of 2 from the line to kick the margin to 57-49 with 2:35 remaining.
MSU still had a chance, as La''Keisha Sutton missed the front end of a one-and-one and the Gamecocks'' Jewel May committed a foul to stop the clock. The Lady Bulldogs failed to convert, as Ashley Brown missed the front end of a one-and-one and Porsha Porter couldn''t control the offensive rebound.
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said her team''s defense in the second half was the difference.
"Over the course of 40 minutes I thought we did a job on Johnson," Staley said. "She got hers, but come the last five minutes I thought other people were bringing the ball up the floor. We took care of Govero and (Porsha) Porter. That is why we won the game. They didn''t get their averages."
Porter (six points, eight rebounds) picked up her fourth foul with 16:47 to play in the game. She didn''t return until the 7:06 mark with the game tied. She scored only two points in that span.
South Carolina also was more aggressive against Johnson in the second half. After Johnson scored 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting in the first half, the Gamecocks rotated defenders on her and tried to trap her in the half-court set.
"She is very quick, as you saw," said junior guard Markeisha Grant, who was one of the Gamecocks charged with slowing down Johnson. "We played a little back off her and when they set screens we went under the screens to push her back to the other side, or we will trap her to slow her down a little bit.
"The first half, we thought we let her do what she wanted to do. We mad adjustments in the second half and slowed her down a little bit. We made her think about something other than shooting and scoring."
Johnson (21 points, five assists, four rebounds) said the defense didn''t alter her plan, but she finished 8-for-18 from the field and had only two points in the final 11:39.
"Their guards were a little bug in my ear," Johnson said. "They stayed on me the whole game, as well as all of our guards. They had a lot of depth and they play with a lot of tenacity."
Even though her team won, Staley credited MSU. She said her preparation for the game showed her how much the Lady Bulldogs, who have 11 new players this season, have improved.
"There is some cohesion there, it just takes a little bit of time for all off the new players who play integral roles in their success to jell," Staley said. "It is coming together. They are going to win some more basketball games."
That was little consolation to Fanning-Otis or the players, who aren''t satisfied with morale victories.
"We''re going to learn from this. This is going to help us win another ballgame," Fanning-Otis said. "We are to that point with our basketball team. We are improving, we are getting tougher, we are understanding each other better, we''re gaining confidence in each other."
MSU will play host to Vanderbilt at 7 p.m. Thursday.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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