November 24, 2009 7:32:00 AM
The Mississippi State women''s basketball team passed its first true test of the season Sunday afternoon with an 84-55 victory against Maryland.
A crowd of 3,042 at Humphrey Coliseum watched as the Lady Bulldogs used a hot shooting day from senior guard Alexis Rack (career-high 43 points), stout defense, and their experience to overwhelm the younger Terrapins.
Now coach Sharon Fanning-Otis and her players need your help.
The victory was so impressive that it helped the Lady Bulldogs climb from No. 25 to No. 19 in this week''s Associated Press Top 25 poll. A panel of women''s basketball writers (myself included) votes every week on the poll, and a jump of six spots is noteworthy.
It''s also noteworthy because the Lady Bulldogs are making moves in just their second week in the poll after not being ranked in it since 2003.
MSU will put its new ranking to the test Thursday when it faces No. 13 Texas in its first game at the Paradise Jam in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. The Lady Bulldogs also will play Rutgers, which lost to Georgia by one point on Sunday in Athens, Ga., and Southern California on Friday and Saturday, respectively.
MSU defeated Texas last season in the first round of the NCAA tournament, so Fanning-Otis knows her players will need to be ready for that game and the other two national-caliber programs.
Fanning-Otis also knows that crowd support in Starkville for the team''s next home game against Southern Miss (7 p.m., Dec. 2) is crucial. She punctuated that feeling Sunday after the game when she thanked the fans and encouraged them to come back to help the Lady Bulldogs. She elaborated on her thoughts in the postgame press conference.
"It is so important we grow this crowd," Fanning-Otis said. "They made a difference. I feel like we gave them a product that is worth 3,000 or 4,000 people in the stands. ... We have to do our part, but there is going to be a lot of great basketball games (here this season).
"We need this crowd for Southern Miss, not just Maryland, which is coming in ranked (No. 20 in the USA Today/ESPN Coaches Poll). We need to establish this as, ''Hey, the Lady Bulldogs are something special,'' but they have to know they''re going to help us get to that something special. Without them, I don''t think we can do as good of a job."
Cost isn''t as issue. General admission tickets are $5, and general admission season tickets are $25. Reserved season tickets are a little more ($80), but it''s difficult to find something of comparative value these days.
I can say that with confidence because this year''s MSU women''s team has the potential to make the best showing in the program''s history. Last season marked the program''s fourth trip to the second round of the NCAA tournament. This season, the Lady Bulldogs are focused on making a run at a first Southeastern Conference title and making a deeper run into the NCAA tournament.
All of that is possible because the Lady Bulldogs have a leader in Alexis Rack who can take over a game. The senior guard scored a career-high 43 points to lead the Lady Bulldogs (4-0). She said it was special for her to have a career afternoon with the school''s all-time leading scorer LaToya Thomas as one of the more than 3,000 fans in attendance. She hopes those fans and more will come back to see the Lady Bulldogs play as many times as they can this season.
"It is always good playing home, getting the love from the crowd, and hearing the crowd erupt when you''re getting up," Rack said. "I think the crowd played a big role in the victory, and it helped our energy to stay up."
MSU also has a talented and experienced cast that includes seniors Chanel Mokango, Armelie Lumanu, Tysheka Grimes, and junior Mary Kathryn Govero. The true test for the Lady Bulldogs will be to get role players like senior center Rima Kalonda, senior forward Bethany Washington, sophomore guard Diamber Johnson, freshman Ashley Jones, and others to seize the moment and to help make the Lady Bulldogs deeper and even more dangerous.
University of Maryland coach Brenda Frese was impressed with MSU''s athleticism, length, and their effort. She also said the Lady Bulldogs played with a lot of poise and confidence.
"They''re an exciting team to watch," Frese said. "I just wish we weren''t on the other end of it."
The question now will be how many people in the Greater Golden Triangle area did MSU impress Sunday with its victory, and how many of them will come back?
Here''s hoping more fans will take a chance on the Lady Bulldogs. Believe me, you will be impressed and your support will play a key role in what could be a history-making season.
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Commercial Dispatch. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.