December 17, 2009 9:25:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- On one hand, the Mississippi State women''s basketball team will offer its first five games.
Included in those victories was a 29-point drubbing of perennial power Maryland.
On the other hand, the Lady Bulldogs would like to forget a three-game winless streak last month in the Virgin Islands. The three-day trip saw MSU lose to Texas, Rutgers, and Southern California, teams that will mirror the level of competition it will face in the Southeastern Conference starting Jan. 3.
On Wednesday, coach Sharon Fanning-Otis'' team was somewhere in the middle.
After a sluggish first five minutes, MSU turned it on and rolled to an 88-53 victory against Mississippi Valley State in front of a matinee crowd of 1,356 at Humphrey Coliseum.
Senior guard Alexis Rack scored a game-high 24 points to lead four players in double figures and help the Lady Bulldogs (8-3) gear up for their game Sunday at No. 12 Xavier.
That game and a Dec. 30 home date against Alcorn State are MSU''s last non-conference games before it travels to Auburn to open the 16-game SEC portion of its schedule.
How well MSU, which was picked to finish third and fifth in the SEC by the league coaches and media, respectively, fares in the ultra-competitive league remains to be seen, but Fanning-Otis believes much work still needs to be done.
"We are nowhere near where we need to be to win a conference championship or to compete for a conference championship," Fanning-Otis said. "If we don''t mature and communicate better, set better screens, work harder on a more consistent basis, it won''t happen. If we do, we can compete for a championship."
The latest victory might be best described as fool''s gold. MSU shot 50.8 percent from the field and a season-low 50 percent (17 of 34) from the free-throw line against an overmatched MVSU (2-5). Chanel Mokango had a season-high 18 points and matched her season-high with four blocked shots. Armelie Lumanu added 12 points, nine rebounds, six assists, and five steals, and Tysheka Grimes had 10 points and 12 rebounds in what looked to be an impressive effort judging from the numbers.
But Fanning-Otis said she will continue to pound the players because the team''s expectations are so high this season. She said a 17-turnover performance and a poor free throw shooting effort aren''t acceptable with the start of another season coming so soon.
"This team still doesn''t know each other like it needs to," Fanning-Otis said. "You still have people who are getting back into roles that they haven''t play before, so we just need to continue to improve and pass this next test."
Fanning-Otis said the Lady Bulldogs'' progress has been good in places but not consistent enough. She said she needs to see the team work together more and communicate better on the floor for that to happen.
"They are going to have to understand how to play to the strengths of each player and how to play to the strength of each team," Fanning-Otis said. "We are not going to be turning the basketball over 17 times haphazardly. We are going to have to be more mature than that when some of them are unforced. That takes discipline the next time we practice and in the next game. You can''t just turn it on and turn it off when you have a tough opponent. You have to work on it so you develop that routine mentally so you''re prepared and you already have put yourself through so when the heat is on it is something you''re used to."
Grimes acknowledged that Wednesday''s game, which started at noon, wasn''t the team''s best performance, but she said everyone is making progress. She said the team played down to the level of its competition.
"We just have to maintain our focus every game," Grimes said. "We were sluggish. We weren''t playing up to our potential. We always know how it feels when we''re playing how we should play."
Rack has charted the team''s progress at times this season by saying it is getting closer to "perfection," or playing like it can for 40 minutes. While Wednesday''s effort didn''t come close to reaching that goal, she said the team has to be careful not to get into the habit of starting games so slowly.
"I don''t think we had the defensive intensity we need to have," Rack said.
Rack did say, though, that the Lady Bulldogs will do better at the free-throw line. She said the team showed Saturday in a 72-68 victory at Louisiana Tech that it can hit its free throws when needed. The Lady Bulldogs made 18 of 28, including several late, to complete the come-from-behind victory.
But Fanning-Otis wants MSU to play to its potential every night, and she said the team will re-focus and get back to work and try to reach that point.
"I am going to stay on them because our expectations are to play for a championship," Fanning-Otis said. "We''re trying to be a great basketball team not just a good basketball team."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.