February 12, 2009
STARKVILLE -- The Mississippi State women''s basketball team isn''t the only squad feeling the urgency as February counts down to March.
If MSU feels a tinge of anxiety being on the bubble for the NCAA tournament, coach Renee Ladner''s Ole Miss women''s basketball team has a host of butterflies as it enters the stretch run.
The Rebels can quiet some of that uneasiness at 8 tonight (Fox Sports Net South) when they play host to Mississippi State at Tad Smith Coliseum.
Ole Miss (15-9, 4-5 Southeastern Conference) likely needs to win the game more than MSU (18-6, 5-4) because it dropped a 69-64 decision in Starkville on Jan. 11.
The Rebels led by 18 points in that game, only to see the Lady Bulldogs rally behind the 3-point shooting of junior guard Alexis Rack.
Coming off back-to-back home victories against then-No. 20 Vanderbilt and LSU, MSU can strengthen its case for inclusion in the NCAA tournament field. The past two victories have helped MSU climb to No. 41 in the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) and to No. 77 in the Strength of Schedule (SOS).
The NCAA tournament selection committee uses both ratings as guides to hand out at-large bids to the 64-team field.
MSU coach Sharon Fanning knows her team faces a stern test tonight against an opponent that is fighting to keep its NCAA hopes alive.
"Ole Miss is a very, very good basketball team," Fanning said. "They play with a lot of energy and really well together. How do we do the fundamentals of the game, control all of the emotions of it, and execute? Hopefully we can make a stand and keep winning in the SEC."
Ladner hopes her team can complete the effort it started in Starkville. The hot shooting of junior Bianca Thomas (game- and career-high 25 points) helped the Rebels build an 18-point early in the second half, but Rack (19 points) helped spark the rally. Robin Porter (17 points), Armelie Lumanu (15), and Chanel Mokango (10) also scored in double figures.
Ladner has watched plenty of video tape of MSU. She said the Lady Bulldogs have gained confidence from road victories at Kentucky and LSU and their past two wins and are playing a physical brand of basketball.
"They are getting better every time they hit the floor," Ladner said. "I think they have upped their defensive intensity and they have five scorers on the floor at all times. They have a lot of weapons."
Ladner has been impressed that the Lady Bulldogs are playing with "reckless abandon" for 40 minutes. She said the Rebels will have to match that sense of urgency and play with a lot of toughness if they want to protect their home court.
Ladner also said the Rebels will have to be mentally prepared to take the Lady Bulldogs'' best shot. She said the team struggled in Starkville and didn''t handle MSU''s intensity when it rallied in their first meeting.
Coming of a one-point victory at South Carolina on Sunday, Ladner feels the Rebels are ready to play with that mind-set tonight.
"I think the biggest key is sustained effort and we don''t take any plays off," Ladner said. "We have to have a sustained effort mentally and physically.
"(In the first meeting), they upped their defensive intensity and we didn''t match that intensity and made mental mistakes down the stretch and allowed the pressure to bother us. We hope that was then and this is now and that we matured and we understand what it takes in those situations."
Fanning has seen the Lady Bulldogs mature and start the past two games with a lot of energy, especially on defense.
Offensively, she said MSU is playing more aggressively and is learning how to pick its spots and to get more people involved.
"I think we''re understanding combinations better," Fanning said. "The biggest thing for us is to execute better. It is just fine-tuning the system we have in place. We have added some things in the last few weeks, we have tweaked a few things, we have changed combinations around a little bit on substitution patterns, but I think at this time of the year you want to hold on to what we have and keep getting better at it."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.