November 17, 2009 11:23:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- The pieces continue to come together for the Mississippi State women''s basketball team.
An unexpected one was added to the mix Monday when MSU landed at No. 25 in the first Associated Press Top 25 ranking of the regular season.
The Lady Bulldogs (2-0) climbed into the poll after beating Arkansas-Pine Bluff 106-48 on Friday and East Tennessee State 80-50 on Sunday. They were also receiving votes (No. 28) in the preseason poll.
"It''s great to begin the season with two wins and a top-25 ranking," MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said. "Hopefully, we will improve as the season progresses. We realize the challenge of our schedule, including our non-conference games and 16 games in SEC play."
The ranking marks the first time the Lady Bulldogs have been in the AP Top 25 since the final poll in 2003 when they finished No. 13 after reaching the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Tennessee (No. 6), LSU (No. 7), Georgia (No. 16), and Vanderbilt (No. 22) are the other Southeastern Conference teams ranked.
Even though the Lady Bulldogs have scored 186 points in their first two victories of the 2009-10 season, Fanning-Otis is looking to solidify rotations. Her next chance to mix and match lineups will come at 7 p.m. Wednesday when MSU plays host to Utah Valley University (2-1) at Humphrey Coliseum.
The Lady Bulldogs will conclude their season-opening four-game homestand at 2 p.m. Sunday against Atlantic Coast Conference power Maryland.
MSU has had plenty of bright spots in its first two games. In the opener, Tysheka Grimes (22 points, 12 rebounds), Mary Kathryn Govero (12, 13), and Chanel Mokango (11, 11) helped the Lady Bulldogs have three players with double-doubles in a game for the first time in the program''s history.
On Sunday, Govero, a junior guard, had 12 rebounds to help her post back-to-back double-digit rebound efforts for the first time in her career. The Lady Bulldogs also took three charges in the first 13 minutes, 59 seconds.
Highlights aside, MSU has had its share of kinks to work out on the offensive end. Armelie Lumanu (5 of 13 from the field) looked awkward at times driving to the basket and pushing shots at the rim. Alexis Rack (eight turnovers) made questionable decisions trying to force the ball against zone defenses and in between multiple defenders. The Lady Bulldogs also fumbled a handful of passes down low that could have led to easy baskets.
It''s easy to nitpick after two games, especially when 12 players are seeing action, but the players realize they will need to cut down on their mistakes because their margin of error will decrease as the season progresses.
"I think we''re playing at a high level but not high enough," Rack said. "We''re still trying to get the energy for 40 minutes. As you all saw, we slacked up in the beginning of the second half (Sunday), but we picked it up."
An AP ranking figures to add to the attention but Fanning-Otis and the players welcome that pressure. After all, she and the players feel the team has the potential to build on its 23-10 record and its second-round loss in the NCAA tournament last season.
MSU showed flashes of strong half-court execution in the second half against ETSU. On consecutive possessions, the Lady Bulldogs worked the ball inside-out for a 3-pointer by freshman Ashley Jones and then worked it inside to senior Rima Kalonda for a turnaround jumper on the block.
Govero also hit a jump shot off a screen and Rack showed she still can break down defenses to penetrate and score with a layup that gave the team a 60-36 lead.
The team''s six-plus minute stretch in the second half also included a jumper by Mokango in which she had Kalonda open on the block for a layup and a 3-pointer by Govero that came off a hustle save of a loose ball by Mokango.
Grimes, who had 12 points in 24 minutes, was one of a few Lady Bulldogs to attack the basket Sunday early in the game. She said aggressiveness, hustle plays, and rebounding will be keys this season.
"Our offensive execution is good, but we work every day to get better," Grimes said. "We''re trying to perfect it. There are a lot of things, like easy passes. I remember Alexis made an easy pass that I missed, but it happens. We''re just trying to perfect those things."
Rack said the Lady Bulldogs have to stay focused, especially on defense, because she feels hard work on that end will help the team execute better on offense.
Fanning-Otis wants to continue to see players use screens better, to make the extra pass, and to get to the foul line more. She feels the continuity will improve as the team settles into a rotation and players emerge to accept roles.
"That''s what we''re trying to get to, where we take great shots, that we have easy passes, and we''re shoting uncontested things," Fanning-Otis said. "As a team switches up defensively, you have more decisions to make. That is why you practice hard because when the pressure is on you can read and react."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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