November 25, 2009 5:15:00 PM
STARKVILLE -- The next three days should reveal a lot about the Mississippi State women''s basketball team.
After climbing six spots in this week''s Associated Press Top 25 thanks to an impressive home victory against the University of Maryland, the No. 19 Lady Bulldogs will put that ranking to the test in a scenic locale.
MSU (4-0) will take on No. 13 Texas at 7 tonight in its first of three games at the Paradise Jam in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. The Lady Bulldogs also will play Rutgers at 4:45 p.m. Friday and Southern California at 4:45 p.m. Saturday.
The games will be the team''s first on the road this season for the Lady Bulldogs, who left Starkville on Monday to travel to Memphis, where they then boarded a plane Tuesday to prepare for the three-game run at one of the nation''s top tournaments.
MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said the Lady Bulldogs planned to enjoy their 84-55 victory against Maryland for 24 hours before they re-focused on Texas, a team MSU beat 71-63 last season in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Columbus, Ohio.
Homestanding Ohio State then eliminated MSU 64-58 in the second round. The NCAA tournament appearance was the first for the Lady Bulldogs since the 2002-03 season.
Last season, an experienced Maryland team snapped MSU''s season-opening 11-game winning streak. With eight seniors, including guard Alexis Rack, who had a career-high 43 points Sunday against Maryland, the Lady Bulldogs are now the more mature team.
Fanning-Otis is anxious to see how that team responds to the early season challenge.
"If we don''t continue to improve, we''re not going to win the ballgames," Fanning-Otis said. "If we do, we have a chance at winning any game we play. You want to give yourself a chance to win, and expect to win. With that, it begins with defense, it goes to rebounding, and it is (taking) great shots. You have to figure out how to do that with changes to things. The next team is not going to play like the last team."
The next team likely will try to find a way to slow Rack, the Southeastern Conference Player of the Week. Rack was 14 of 21 from the field, including a 7-of-14 effort from 3-point range. She also had six rebounds, six assists, and two steals in the best game of her MSU career.
Fanning-Otis was impressed with the performance because it was multi-dimensional.
"(Her points came on) layups, free throws, jump shots, and threes," Fanning-Otis said. "If you can only do one thing, a lot of times a team is going to be able to stop one thing."
Fanning-Otis believes MSU as a whole can be equally dangerous because it has experience, size, and athleticism.
Junior guard Mary Kathryn Govero hopes the Lady Bulldogs can build on the Maryland victory. She and senior Tysheka Grimes have provided offense on the wings and could step into bigger roles if teams opt to concentrate more on Rack.
Govero, who had 12 points and four rebounds against Maryland, said she was surprised how well the team played Sunday.
"We definitely knew we had the talent to beat them, but the way we did it, I mean, none of us expected to come in and beat them by 30 points," Govero said. "We were really excited with how we played today, and it just gives us confidence going into the rest of the season."
Govero said the key to the victory was the team had a lot of energy and focus from the start of the game. She said that intensity translated to the defensive end, where MSU forced 28 turnovers and had a 30-6 edge in points off turnovers.
Rack said the Lady Bulldogs played 35 of the desired 40 minutes the team shoots for every game. She said each game from here on out will be a test to see if MSU can reach that goal. She is confident the team will be able to do it.
"I think our energy and intensity was out of the gym coming out," Rack said. "We knew from the jump that is what we needed, the intensity on defense and just the energy throughout the game."
Junior guard Kathleen Nash leads Texas (2-1) at 16 points a game.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.