March 5, 2011 10:13:00 PM
The work has only started.
That''s the approach Sharon Fanning-Otis took a day after her Mississippi State women''s basketball saw its season end Friday in a 69-55 loss to Vanderbilt in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference tournament at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn.
Fanning-Otis and her assistant coaches will impress on the Lady Bulldogs the importance of getting back into the gym as soon as possible and attacking individual skill work so next season can be a return to form. She feels the team made significant progress in an effort to reach the goal of becoming the most improved team in the league by the end of the season.
"I think that (we) would be the vote for a lot of people in the league for most improved team," Fanning-Otis said. "We were playing everybody harder and stronger and playing better first halves. We could have hung our head (after an 0-9 start to the SEC) and we could have quit working. But I think they did continue to work hard."
One season after going 21-13 and advancing to the program''s first Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, MSU slipped to 13-17 and won''t be considered for postseason play. The finish ends a run of consecutive NCAA tournament appearances in which MSU pulled upsets each season.
This season, though, the loss of nine letterwinners, including All-SEC performers Alexis Rack, Chanel Mokango, and Armelie Lumanu, and the addition of 11 new players created a form of on-the-job training that led to inconsistency.
Fanning-Otis also said the team wasn''t as tough as it needed to be at the start of the season and at the beginning of the SEC slate. That changed as the Lady Bulldogs played more together and developed a better understanding of terminology and team concepts. That adjustment helped the Lady Bulldogs play some of the their best basketball down the stretch. They posted road victories at Auburn and at Alabama and swept the season series from the University of Mississippi.
Still, Fanning-Otis believed the team had the potential to accomplish more.
"It is very disappointing because I thought we could have ended up on the winning side of things," Fanning-Otis said. "We might not have been in the NCAA tournament. That would have been something that would have been a challenge for us."
On Friday, Vanderbilt had a season-high 52-percent shooting effort and limited MSU to 30.7 percent to earn its third victory against the Lady Bulldogs in as many meetings this season.
Vanderbilt hovered around the 60-percent shooting mark for most of the game. The Lady Commodores scored the game''s first four points and never trailed.
"We had to have a better team defensive game tonight," Fanning-Otis said. "With our team, it all starts on the defensive end. In the first half, (Vanderbilt''s Tiffany) Clarke had zero points. She finishes with 23. She was the difference in the ballgame in the second half."
Junior guard Diamber Johnson paced MSU with 20 points and six assists. She was the only player in double figures.
"I am pleased with Diamber," Fanning-Otis said. "I feel like she has come around and has been able to throw a punch there and not be hesitant. She was taking the ball to the rim."
Junior forward Ashley Brown had five points and nine rebounds in 20 minutes before fouling out. Junior center Catina Bett had five points and four rebounds in 31 minutes. She also had four fouls.
Senior Mary Kathryn Govero ended her career with a 3-of-16 shooting effort and eight points. She was 2 of 9 from 3-point range and also had four fouls in 37 minutes.
Govero was the lone senior on MSU roster. She concludes her career 12th on the school''s all-time scoring list with 1,173 points. This season, she was named second-team All-SEC and the league''s Scholar-Athlete of the Year.
Fanning-Otis pointed to Govero''s development in her four years at the school as something the returning players need to emulate if the team is going to get back to the NCAA tournament.
"Mary Kathyrn may be the best pure jump shooter we have ever had in our program," Fanning-Otis said. "She was a role model and team player. She was a leader and inspiration both on and off the court. I feel truly blessed to have coached that type of player."
MSU will add Khadijah Ellison, Jamica James, Martha Alwal, Kendra Grant, and Shamia Robinson, of West Oktibbeha High School, to the mix for next season. Robinson and Grant are part of The Clarion-Ledger''s Dandy Dozen, which recognizes the best players in the state, while Ellison is a top-50 national recruit and Alwal is a 6-foot-5 post player.
Those players could add to what could be a deeper rotation. Junior Danielle Rector, who had offseason lung surgery, has one year of eligibility remaining. Senior Ashley Newsome, who was in her first season with the program after a standout volleyball career at the school, also has another year of eligibility.
Freshman forward Carnecia Williams will be coming off a redshirt season. A decision as to whether junior forward Elyseia Dunn, who played in only four games this season, will redshirt will be made in the spring, Fanning-Otis said.
Fanning-Otis said all of those players will have to be ready to contribute because she is hungry to play deeper into March Madness.
"We have to continue to grow as a team and let that improvement be the incentive and motivation," Fanning-Otis said. "We have to learn to work harder and to have higher expectations and to be more consistent."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.