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Defense helps Vanderbilt women rally past MSU


Adam Minichino



STARKVILLE -- Nearly all of the avenues were closed for Diamber Johnson. 


Wherever the Mississippi State junior point guard turned, a defender was waiting for her. In the first half, Vanderbilt''s Jence Rhoads, Angela Puleo, Christina Foggie, Jasmine Lister, and Elan Brown all took turns shadowing Johnson and doing their best to limit her good looks at the basket. 


But the Commodores turned to Rhoads at crunch time. 


The senior guard, who is known for her ability to lead a team, accepted the defensive challenge in the second half and played a key role in not allowing Johnson to be the steady hand that guides MSU''s attack. 


As a result, the Lady Bulldogs once again suffered through another scoring drought and allowed a lead to slip away in a 74-62 loss at Humphrey Coliseum. 


"I felt like I was (a focus of the defense)," Johnson said. "I didn''t really do as good as I should have. I was just trying to drive and get other people open. 


"They just played hard. We just didn''t come back at them with the same intensity, so it looked like they were doing a whole lot more." 


Johnson finished with 12 points (4-of-12 shooting) and had seven assists (three turnovers), but she was rendered ineffective in a game-turning 17-0 second-half run that saw Vanderbilt (18-8, 9-4 Southeastern Conference) erase a 44-38 deficit and take a 55-44 lead with 8 minutes, 32 seconds remaining. 


"We did a lot of switching and we were really concerned with Mary Kathryn (Govero) and taking away her threes," Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb said. "I thought we did a great job on her. Diamber was hurting us, especially on the penetration. I love that Jence was on her, and I am hoping she wanted to guard her. It wasn''t a conscious effort. I had confidence that Jasmine, Foggie, Jence, and Elan Brown could all guard the dribble drive, no matter who it was from." 


In the first meeting, Johnson had her poorest shooting game (1-for-13) of the season in a 65-44 loss on Jan. 6 in Nashville, Tenn. She has had success of late using high screens to free herself for 15- to 17-foot jump shots, but Vanderbilt''s "smaller" lineup allowed it to cut off those driving angles and forced MSU to look to other options to score. 


"I knew we needed to get stops, and I was guarding the ball, so that was my focus to get everyone going in our man-to-man, and, hopefully, everyone could follow suit," Rhoads said. "I think (Diamber) had a good game. She is a good player. I would like to say we frazzled her a little bit." 


Johnson missed three shots in that span that saw MSU (10-15, 2-11) go 0-for-11 from the field. Like in other games this season, the Lady Bulldogs, who led by as many as seven points early in the second half, had plenty of good looks but weren''t able to connect. Once the misses started to pile up, the momentum was difficult to stem. 


MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis called two timeouts to try to halt the slide and to praise the energy the Lady Bulldogs were delivering. Unfortunately, they only served as 30-second respites for the Commodores. 


"This is where you have to make a stand and you have to get the stop and take a great shot," Fanning-Otis said. "They answered the bell at that time and that''s when they made the run and changed the momentum of the game." 


Govero paced MSU with 17 points. Junior center Catina Bett had 10 rebounds and nine points but was 3 of 14 from the field. Junior guard Porsha Porter fouled out after scoring only seven points (2-of-9 shooting) in 26 points. She had scored 13 or more points in five of the past six games. 


Junior forward Ashley Brown (two points, six rebounds) also fouled out after playing only 26 minutes. 


Tiffany Clarke led all scorers with 22 points and 14 rebounds. Lister, a freshman, provided the spark in the run, scoring 10 of her 16 points. She also had five rebounds and four assists to help make up for the lack of production from seniors Rhoads (nine points, four steals) and Hannah Tuomi (three points). 


It also helped Vanderbilt shot 50 percent in the second half, held a 52-36 rebounding edge, and a 32-20 advantage in points in the paint. 


It mattered little MSU met one of its goals -- a positive assist-to-turnover ratio (10-9) -- for just the fourth time this season, and first since a victory against Buffalo on Dec. 29, 2010.  


MSU will play at 3:30 p.m. Sunday at the University of Florida.


Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.


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