February 26, 2011 11:07:00 PM
The Mississippi State women''s basketball team is at its best when it shares the basketball.
That probably could be said for any team, but that interconnectedness on offense hasn''t been there consistently this season for the Lady Bulldogs.
The first 8 minutes, 14 seconds Thursday night offered a glimpse of what could be to come next season.
MSU had six assists in the first part of the first half against the University of Alabama. When you consider that number equaled the total MSU had in three games this season, it''s apparent the Lady Bulldogs have progressed and continue to work toward coach Sharon Fanning-Otis'' goal to become the most improved team in the Southeastern Conference at the end of the season.
That road will come to an end at 2 p.m. today when MSU (11-16, 3-12 SEC) plays host to the University of Mississippi (10-17, 3-12) at Humphrey Coliseum.
Guard Mary Kathryn Govero will be the only senior player honored in her final home game.
"I have not thought too much about it because I don''t want to have any added pressure," Govero said. "I just look at it as another game. It will be special because it is my last game at home, but I just want to go out and have a good game and come out and get a win."
Today''s game will determine MSU''s seed for the SEC tournament, which starts Thursday in Nashville, Tenn. A win would give MSU a series sweep against Ole Miss and help it secure the 11th seed. Auburn, LSU, and South Carolina are tied at 8-7. The outcome of today''s games -- Kentucky at Auburn, LSU at Tennessee, and Vanderbilt at South Carolina -- will determine the No. 6 seed, MSU''s opponent.
A loss by Alabama at Arkansas would drop the Crimson Tide to 4-12 in the league and into a tie with the Lady Bulldogs. But Alabama has a win against Florida, which likely would give it the nod as the 10th seed.
The logjam in the middle of the conference is a lot like last season, when MSU finished in a four-way tie at 9-7 and earned the No. 3 seed based on tiebreakers.
A year ago, Fanning-Otis referred often to the "connected toughness" her team needed to play to its potential. This season, toughness again has been a refrain, but the inexperience of this season''s team -- 11 new players -- has made that journey a work in progress that has stretched to the end of the regular season.
Fanning-Otis said the team hasn''t changed its points of emphasis and that it tries to keep things simple. She was encouraged by the start against Alabama just as much as she was pleased with how her team fought off the Crimson Tide to earn its third SEC road win of the season.
"It is funny how things start to click," Fanning-Otis said. "We are understanding better. I hope we understand rebounding better (against Ole Miss). But we''re seeing each other better and finding each other. We''re playing some of our best basketball as the regular season comes to a close, and, hopefully, tomorrow we will continue to improve and you will see more stats you will be able to write about."
On Thursday, junior Porsha Porter had a career-high eight assists to help MSU record 14 assists, one shy of its season high in a SEC game.
Govero said MSU''s maturation handling pressure defense helped it start quickly against Alabama. She said it also helped MSU hit 50 percent of its shots in the first half, and 54.5 for the game (24 of 44).
Govero said the chemistry a team develops always is going to be a work in progress, and that the Lady Bulldogs have made strides since a 21-point loss to Vanderbilt in their SEC opener on Jan. 6.
"We have started playing better and knowing each other better," Govero said. "We have started (to get a feel) if a player is going to cut toward the goal or if they are going to go to the 3-point line."
Fanning-Otis hopes the Lady Bulldogs will get a few more chances to put their improved chemistry to the test. She said there are plenty of other things the team also needs to address, but it is nice to see a marked improvement when it comes to sharing the basketball.
"I think we are learning to recognize various aspects of the game," Fanning-Otis said. "It could be the importance of setting a screen or the importance of making a pass on time and where it needs to be. It could be the importance of blockouts, help on defense, helping each other or positioning relative to containing a drive.
"I think this team has wanted to learn. They have been listening and getting better and tougher. We can''t become complacent right now."
Ole Miss has lost six consecutive games. Led by coach Renee Ladner, the Rebels rank 11th in the SEC in scoring offense and 12th in the league in scoring defense.
Freshman guard Valencia McFarland leads the way for Ole Miss, averaging 13.2 points a game. Shae Nelson is scoring 8.3 ppg.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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