February 24, 2011 8:54:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- The 2010-11 season has been a learning experience for Diamber Johnson.
A year ago, she started five games and played a key role off the bench in a historic season that saw the Mississippi State women''s basketball team advance to the first Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament in program history.
Johnson knew the departure of nine letterwinners meant she would have to assume a bigger role as a junior.
And while the 5-foot-7 guard from Pontotoc has accepted that responsibility, she and the Lady Bulldogs have faced plenty of lessons along the way.
A 10-game losing streak that stretched from December 2010 to earlier this month damaged the team''s hopes of returning to the postseason. Through it all, though, Johnson has remained poised and has done all she can to help the Lady Bulldogs improve.
MSU (10-16, 2-12 Southeastern Conference) will try to take another step on that journey at 6 tonight when it plays the University of Alabama (15-12, 4-10) at Foster Auditorium.
Johnson is second on the team in scoring (12 points per game) to senior guard Mary Kathryn Govero (12.3 ppg.). Both players saw key minutes last season in a run that saw MSU beat Middle Tennessee State and upset Ohio State in the NCAA tournament.
Johnson averaged just 4.1 ppg. in 23.8 minutes a game a year ago. Everything about her game this season has been bigger. Not only has she been asked to handle a bigger scoring and ballhandling role, she also has taken on a valuable leadership position with 11 newcomers to the team.
Johnson acknowledged Wednesday things haven''t gone like MSU would have liked, but she said the team has improved and that it will continue to get better in hopes of creating havoc in the SEC tournament on March 3-6 in Nashville, Tenn.
"We haven''t given up," Johnson said. "Most teams have probably already hung up the towel and have their heads down. We are trying to the best of our ability and we are still improving. We hope we can start off where we are leaving off next year and that will set us up for the next season."
Johnson hopes the maturation of the team and improved chemistry will help the team have better toughness and consistency next season. She said the team hasn''t enjoyed the fact it has been close so many times and that those results could have turned the season.
"We know we''re that close," Johnson said. "I think the fact we know it and the fact we still believe in each other is what is keeping us positive and still motivated."
MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said the players are understanding better what they need to do to compete in the league. She said the Lady Bulldogs have better depth and a better awareness of things the team needs to do. She said Johnson has grown as a leader and someone who can lead the team.
"I think she is learning how to penetrate and to stick her nose in there," Fanning-Otis said. "I think she is gaining confidence and courage on taking the ball to the hole. I think she is understanding what she needs to run and how she needs to play off her teammates better."
Alabama has won three games in a row, and four of its past five. Tierney Jenkins, the SEC''s second-leading scorer is averaging 16 points a game, while junior guard Ericka Russell is averaging 10.3 a game.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.