December 22, 2009 2:42:00 PM
The Mississippi State women''s basketball has discovered this season what it''s like to get an opponent''s best game.
When the opposition has been Texas, Rutgers, Southern California, or Xavier, the result has been less than positive for the Lady Bulldogs.
MSU put itself in that position coming off a 23-11 season in which it advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament. With four starters and 11 letterwinners returning, optimism entering the season was at an all-time high.
Now that the first part of the season is almost done, only a final tune-up against Alcorn State on Dec. 30 remains until the start of the Southeastern Conference season, MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis continues to search for the consistency it will take for the Lady Bulldogs to deliver their best every night.
An 81-60 loss at then-No. 12 Xavier on Sunday provided Fanning-Otis another occasion to lament MSU''s lack of consistency and its inability to respond when challenged by an opponent.
Fanning-Otis has made similar comments through the first 12 games of the season. And while MSU (8-4) doesn''t have a "bad" loss on its schedule, the nature of those defeats (an 0-3 showing at the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands) and its "signature" victories against Maryland and Louisiana Tech don''t seem to balance out.
That''s why Fanning-Otis said Monday the Lady Bulldogs will have a lot of work to do when they reconvene Dec. 26 for practice.
"I didn''t feel we played with the tenacity we have to have when good teams make runs," Fanning-Otis said. "When they score big buckets how do you respond?"
MSU committed 25 turnovers and shot 32.1 percent from the field in the game at the Cintas Center in Cincinnati. Last season, MSU shot a season-low 24.5 percent in a 51-42 home loss to Xavier.
This time, Xavier (8-2) benefited from the presence of Amber Harris, a 6-foot-5 forward, who missed last season with an injury. Harris scored a game-high 19 points and helped the Musketeers outrebound MSU 43-25.
Xavier also committed 25 turnovers but shot 49.1 percent, thanks in large part to Harris and 6-6 center Ta''shia Phillips, who had 14 points and 13 rebounds (11 offensive).
Xavier coach Kevin McGuff was pleased with his team''s performance. Going into the game, he said the Musketeers needed to get back to playing stingy defense and to winning the rebounding battle. After being out rebounded in its previous game, a home loss to unranked Michigan, Xavier more than reached its goal against MSU.
"We just got back to playing great defense and rebounding," McGuff said. "When we do that I think we''re a terrific team."
The questions remains, though, are they 21 points better than a MSU team that is supposed to be a year better and more experienced? McGuff believes MSU will be fine even though it struggled shooting and taking care of the basketball.
"The 21-point margin of victory, I was surprised because I have a lot of respect for the talent Mississippi State has," McGuff said. "I think they''re going to have a great season. I think they''re like a lot like the rest of the country in that they''re all trying to find consistency."
McGuff admitted his team played really well and that it did its share to force turnovers. But he feels MSU will be OK because it has balance and experience. He said the Lady Bulldogs also have a lot of people who can score from the perimeter. The key, he said, will be for MSU to take better care of the basketball and to get more shots.
"If they get enough shots I think they will have plenty of success on the offensive end," McGuff said.
Fanning-Otis hopes that will be the case. She said Harris and Phillips posed a unique matchup that hurt her team, especially in offensive rebounding. Still, she felt the Lady Bulldogs "backed down" when the Musketeers made a couple of runs and didn''t respond.
"Their offensive rebounds led to confidence and made us lose focus," Fanning-Otis said. "I think the rebounds gave them a little momentum and they seemed like they burst our bubble. We didn''t respond in the fashion we''re going to have to respond."
A Xavier run included many ingredients that will be similar to the ones MSU will face in Southeastern Conference action, which begins Jan. 3 at Auburn.
Fanning-Otis hopes the time off and the practices leading up to the Alcorn State game help the Lady Bulldogs recharge their motor for what will be a season-defining final 17 games of the regular season.
"I am asking the same question to the team: What do you want to be and how do you want to finish?" Fanning-Otis said. "We have to evaluate this game and go on and hopefully find some wins down the stretch to finish and be a very good basketball team. A great team would have won all of the games they have played. A really good team would have found a way to win their share of them. We''re trying to emphasize how hard they need to play together and that they have to stay focused."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.