January 8, 2010 9:41:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Melanie Balcomb crowed about the Mississippi State women''s basketball team at Southeastern Conference Media Day.
The Vanderbilt coach knew MSU was tough after losing in Starkville last season, and she realized the Lady Bulldogs were going to be even tougher this season with four starters returning.
"It blew my mind," Balcomb said when told media members picked MSU to finish fifth in the league. "I haven''t seen a coaches poll, but that is the first thing I looked at and said, ''How can you pick Mississippi State fifth?'' To me that is totally out of line."
Picked by the league''s coaches to finish third, MSU lived up to its potential and proved Balcomb''s worst fears to be true Thursday night.
Alexis Rack scored a game-high 31 points to lead five players in double figures in MSU''s 90-76 victory against No. 17 Vanderbilt before a crowd of 516 at Humphrey Coliseum.
Armelie Lumanu (18 points, nine rebounds), Mary Kathryn Govero (14 points), Chanel Mokango 12 points, seven rebounds), and Diamber Johnson (10 points, five rebounds, five assists) also scored in double figures to help MSU (11-4) improve to 2-0 in the SEC for the first time since 2005.
The 90 points also were the most MSU has scored in a victory against Vanderbilt (12-3, 1-1). The Lady Bulldogs hit 17 of 23 free throws in the final 2 minutes, 48 seconds to beat their highest ranked opponent since a 76-71 victory against No. 14 Georgia in 2003.
After watching her team shoot 68 percent in the first half and lead only 40-37 at halftime, Balcomb struck a variety of disbelieving poses in the second half as she watched her team shoot 35.3 percent (12-for-34) and allow MSU to shoot 55.2 percent (16-for-29) in the final 20 minutes.
"Give Mississippi State credit, when they turned it up, we couldn''t keep up," Balcomb said. "We were getting whatever we wanted in the first half and we relaxed. You can''t relax on this team."
Balcomb expected MSU to come out with the defensive intensity it showed at the end of the first half and in the second half.
But it took falling behind 34-19 with 4:15 to play in the first half for the Bulldogs to snap out of their doldrums. The Lady Commodores exploited that funk to score their first 20 points on layups or in the paint.
Rack hit a 3-pointer off a pass from Mokango following a turnover to cut the deficit to 37-29. But a steal and a layup by Lumanu, off a pass from Rack, really seemed to get MSU going. The Lady Bulldogs capitalized made two technical foul free throws after the Lady Commodores were whistled for having too many players on the court and trailed by only three at halftime.
"We started playing defense, team defense," Rack said when asked what the team did to rally. "We also really started to attack on offense. We started to get some stops and we got the ball in transition. The transition game is our kind of game."
It took more than five minutes for MSU to build on that momentum in the second half. The Lady Bulldogs missed two wide open looks and committed three turnovers before Rima Kalonda scored on an offensive rebound putback to give MSU a 49-47 lead with 14:43 to play.
Kalonda''s score ignited an 18-2 run that saw Rack score six points and Mokango add five. The 6-foot-5 center seemed to be more involved in the offense and provided another scoring option as the Lady Bulldogs continue to adjust without senior guard/forward Tysheka Grimes (foot injury).
"I was comfortable out there," Mokango said. "When I got the ball I was looking for shots."
MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis was comfortable with her team''s rebounding. The Lady Bulldogs held a 43-31 rebounding edge (16-5 on the offensive glass). That area was a point of emphasis after MSU was outrebounded 47-31 Sunday in a 73-58 victory at Auburn.
The rebounding effort helped MSU hold a 23-6 edge in second-chance points.
But Fanning-Otis also saw plenty of things to work on in an effort she called a "tale of two halves.
"They were kicking us there at the start, but somehow we managed to toughen up and settle down," Fanning-Otis said. "We played a lot better. ... The last 10 possessions of the first half they only scored three times. That was very big for us. The defensive effort was much better at the end of the first half and throughout the second half."
MSU maintained the momentum by sticking with a six-player rotation in the second half. Johnson, in her second start of the season, had zero turnovers in 37 minutes, while Kalonda had three points and six rebounds in 16 minutes.
The move almost backfired as Lumanu and Govero fouled out late in the second half, but MSU''s work on the defensive end had given it more than enough cushion to hold on. Vanderbilt crept as close as seven points, 79-72, in the final minute, but MSU closed the game on the free-throw line and finished 20 of 27 (74.1 percent).
"We had some people step up tonight," Fanning-Otis said. "Vanderbilt pushed so hard that you have to be ready, so we stayed with a smaller lineup and it worked for us. Rebounding and free throw shooting were big for us."
Merideth Marsh paced Vanderbilt with 28 points, while Jessica Mooney had 12 and Jence Rhoads and Hannah Tuomi each added 11.
Balcomb credited MSU for "turning up" its defensive intensity at the end of the first half and into the second half. She said she figured the Lady Bulldogs would bother her team as much as they did if they played that way.
Turns out they did, which proves Balcomb might have had MSU pegged right last year when she thought they were picked too low.
"Give them credit," Balcomb said. "They turned it up and we didn''t react to it."
n NOTES: MSU improved to 9-0 at home this season. Fourteen points is the smallest margin of victory for the Lady Bulldogs at home this season. ... MSU has defeated Vanderbilt in consecutive games for the first time since 1981. Its margin of victory was the second largest ever in the series. ... MSU scored 98 points in a 106-98 double-overtime loss to Vanderbilt on Feb. 3, 2005. ... Rack scored 30 or more points in a game for the third time this season. ... MSU will play host to No. 4 Tennessee at 1 p.m. Sunday. The SEC Network will televise the game regionally.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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