December 11, 2009 10:09:00 AM
STARVILLE -- Chanel Mokango doesn''t know how many times she has heard the word tough in her short time in Mississippi.
How effectively the senior center plays with that kind of spirit, though, likely will have a huge impact on the Mississippi State women''s basketball''s 2009-10 season.
So far, the 6-foot-5 center is still working to find the right balance to her game.
Mokango and MSU (5-3) will try to take another step closer to their comfort zone at 7 p.m. Saturday when it plays against Louisiana Tech in Ruston, La.
Mokango said a shin injury in the preseason affected her start to the season. Even though she didn''t miss any game action, Mokango didn''t move into the starting lineup until the past two games. She said she is back to feeling close to 100 percent and that she hopes she can continue to play with the toughness the team needs from her.
"I am trying my best to be a leader on this team," Mokango said. "Last year, I didn''t have any pain in my legs. This year, it just came after the conditioning. That is when it started to hurt really, really bad. I am just trying hard."
A year ago, Mokango transitioned nicely from Southeastern Illinois College. She averaged 10.5 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. Still, the rigors of Southeastern Conference action were an adjustment to a player who doesn''t have a lot of bulk. She said last year before the SEC tournament that toughness was the biggest key for her.
"If I am tough and physical I help my team to win," Mokango said.
That sentiment is even truer this season, especially after MSU won 23 games and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament last season. The trip to the NCAA tournament was the first for the program since 2002-03, and with seven seniors (eight including the injured Marneshia Richard) the team faced a lot of expectations entering the season.
MSU is coming off an 85-52 victory against Southern Miss on Dec. 2. Despite the 33-point cushion, the Lady Bulldogs didn''t play to their potential. Mokango was part of that equation, scoring eight points and grabbing eight rebounds in 27 minutes. The numbers were respectable, but coach Sharon Fanning-Otis knows Mokango will have to play a bigger role if her team is to build on last season.
"It is more of strength and disposition of competing in the low block, facing up outside, being able to drive, being able to drive, and being able to hold your ground when you get bumped," Fanning-Otis said. "I have seen her compete a lot harder in practice the last few days. It is going to be important that our whole team progresses with that concept."
Fanning-Otis said the coaches have stressed to Mokango that she will need to play with a level of physical play every game. She said Mokango has "given in" to competition and to a challenge and that she is learning to "stand up and know the importance of her role and the consistency of that relative to the success of our basketball team."
Mokango is fifth on the team in scoring (7.9 points per game) and is leading the team in rebounding (8.5 per game) and in blocked shots (17). Last season, she led the Southeastern Conference and ranked ninth nationally with 97 blocked shots, a school record. Her performance earned her a place on the All-SEC Defensive team with classmate Armelie Lumanu.
Defense often is the thing Mokango talks about when she is asked what she needs to contribute to the team. But she also recognizes that she needs to be more of a scoring threat on a team that could play a lot of minutes this season with four guards.
"I just have to start playing my game," Mokango said. "I don''t care if people push me. Anything is going to come in the game. It is not really easy (being tough), but I am trying. I am doing a much better job on defense."
Louisiana Tech (4-2), which is coached by former WNBA great Teresa Weatherspoon, is coming off a 63-52 victory against Western Kentucky on Wednesday.
MSU defeated Louisiana Tech 72-42 on Dec. 3, 2008. The loss was part of a slow start to the season that cost head coach Chris Long his job. Weatherspoon helped revitalize the Lady Techsters, who finished 21-13 and lost to Illinois State in the second round of the WNIT.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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