January 11, 2010 9:08:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Too long. Too deep. Too good.
Those factors were just some of the reasons why Sunday turned out to be an easier afternoon than expected for the No. 4 University of Tennessee women''s basketball team.
Angie Bjorklund and Glory Johnson tied for team-high scoring honors with 16 points, and Tennessee used a smothering half-court defense that set the tone in a 75-48 victory against Mississippi State before a crowd of 5,787 at Humphrey Coliseum.
Much of the crowd, the third largest ever for a women''s basketball game at MSU, went away unfulfilled as Tennessee (14-1, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) imposed its will on MSU (11-5, 2-1) with a stretched out 2-3 zone on one end and an offense that had too much size and too much pep in its step on the other.
"I am very, very, very, very disappointed relative to work ethic," MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said. "For those of you that are from our area here, we let you down in a big way relative to the character and class in which we played. We''re going to strive to coach better and these girls are going to strive to play better."
Fanning-Otis admitted in the postgame media gathering to be "ticked off" by her team''s performance. She had plenty of reason to be agitated because MSU shot a season-low 28.1 percent (18 of 64) from the field, committed 17 turnovers, was outrebounded 47-40, and was outhustled and outplayed in nearly every facet of the game.
The effort was even more disappointing considering that at least on paper MSU, with four senior starters, figured to have an edge in experience against a Tennessee team that doesn''t have any seniors.
But the Lady Bulldogs never capitalized on that perceived advantage or the possible energy from a home crowd that was just waiting to help them earn their first victory against the Lady Volunteers in 31 meetings and improve to 3-0 in SEC play for the first time.
Instead, Tennessee used the improved play from Bjorklund, a junior guard, who also had six rebounds and three steals, the aggressive play of Johnson, a sophomore guard/forward, who had a career-high 15 rebounds, and the steady all-around play of sophomore guard Shekinna Stricklen (nine points, nine rebounds, six assists) in a clinical effort that left MSU shaking its head.
"There were several phases of it where we just totally, totally shut down," Fanning-Otis said.
Fanning-Otis admitted the Lady Bulldogs are still adjusting to playing without senior guard/forward Tysheka Grimes (foot injury), who missed her third consecutive game, and are moving on with several players in new positions, but she failed to use either of those things, or any other reasons, as excuses. She preferred to list the many ways in which her team failed to execute, to play hard, and to resemble a group that won its first two SEC games in impressive fashion and that the league coaches picked to finish third in the conference.
"You have to guard hard, you have to be alert," Fanning-Otis said. "We did not execute offensively from the get-go in terms of setting screens and everybody being on the same page. When things didn''t go well offensively, we backed down defensively. You can''t do that against a great team. I am totally disappointed in our effort."
Four possessions in the first half epitomized the Lady Bulldogs'' afternoon. Trailing 20-11 with 9 minutes, 41 seconds to play, MSU grabbed one of its four offensive rebounds in the opening half, but Diamber Johnson carried the basketball for a turnover as she tried to re-set the offense.
On its next possession, MSU''s Armelie Lumanu (five points, 2-of-10 shooting, eight rebounds) threw the ball away as she pushed the tempo in transition. Lumanu could have used her athleticism to get into the lane and create a better shot.
MSU then committed another turnover after Ashley Jones used an upfake to evade a defender on the 3-point line. She attempted to pass the ball into the post, but the Lady Volunteers collapsed to make the steal.
Alicia Manning''s steal off another Lumanu pass in a half-court set capped the flurry. Tennessee failed to extend the lead in that stretch, but it used a 10-2 run later in the half to extend a nine-point edge to a 32-15 lead off a layup by Johnson in transition. The basket forced Fanning-Otis to call her third timeout in the half and ask her players something that resembled "What are you doing down here?"
While Fanning-Otis wasn''t pleased with plenty of things, Tennessee coach Pat Summitt liked her team''s defensive intensity, its rebounding, and its execution on offense. She said the idea to start the game in a zone came to her Saturday night. It is one of the few times (against Baylor this season) a Tennessee team has eschewed the player-to-player defense for a zone to start a game in Summitt''s 36 years.
"We knew we had to be focused because I think this Mississippi State team is very dangerous," Summitt said. "I think our defense had an impact on how they played. We have to buy into that every game."
Summitt said she opted for the zone to capitalize on her team''s length and its size (10 players who are 6-foot or taller on the 13-player roster). It worked just as well as she figured.
"Watching our team in practice, we just really had a presence that I thought was going to really help us when we played zone," Summitt said. "They are very athletic. I thought we were able to negate some of the athleticism because of our size."
MSU senior guard Alexis Rack (team-high 19 points on 7-of-22 shooting) hit her first shot of the day, a 3-pointer from the left wing, but finished the first half 2-for-9 from the field and with only five points. She credited the Lady Volunteers'' defense, which extended wide at the top and bottom of the zone and contested shooters on the wings, for keeping the Lady Bulldogs off balance.
"We came out ready, but we didn''t weather their run," Rack said. "We knew they were going to get on a run and we were supposed to come back with one, but we didn''t. We weren''t getting stops, and that is one thing we are used to getting. The stops turn into our transition offense, which is a strong point in our game."
MSU junior guard Mary Kathryn Govero (13 points, eight rebounds) was the only other Lady Bulldog who showed a spark on offense. Still, she was 3 of 10 from 3-point range on a day when MSU was 8-for-30 from long range.
The performance erased the momentum from a road victory at Auburn and a win against then-No. 17 Vanderbilt at home on Thursday.
"We came in expecting to compete and to win this game, so it is very disappointing to come out not just with a loss, but the way we lost the game because we didn''t execute like we needed to," Govero said. "We didn''t play to the potential that we have. If you see the points in the paint (Tennessee 42-16), we didn''t play team defense like we needed to. They were getting second shots, and we have to do a better job of talking out there and being in position to have each others'' back. They were a lot bigger than us, but we have to have each others'' back out there. You haven''t seen the best of us yet."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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