January 22, 2010 10:09:00 AM
OXFORD -- Digging and clawing are two reasons the Ole Miss and Mississippi State women''s basketball teams are going in opposite directions.
On one end, Shantell Black and Kayla Melson attacked the rim with purpose and Nikki Byrd wouldn''t be denied on the backboards.
On the other, MSU continued to start and stop, sputtering between turnovers and missed opportunities with a cautiousness not welcome in the Southeastern Conference.
The result catapulted the Lady Rebels to the top of the SEC and left the Lady Bulldogs struggling for answers at the wrong time of the season.
Black and Bianca Thomas tied for team-high scoring honors with 15 points Thursday night to lead Ole Miss to a 66-58 victory before a crowd of 2,034 at Tad Smith Coliseum.
"I think we came out and did not play as well as we could have in the first half and our kids completely decided in the second half we were better than that and they took it upon themselves to gather, to make plays, to play with great hustle and desire, to make big shots, and to pull together to once again finish a game," Ole Miss coach Renee Ladner said. "This is a typical Mississippi State-Ole Miss slugfest, and tonight, I guess, we had the last punch."
The victory was the fourth in a row for Ole Miss (13-5, 4-1 SEC). It marked the first time under Ladner, who took over prior to the 2007-08 season, that the Lady Rebels have won four consecutive conference games.
Defense and an attacking mind-set were the difference. Ole Miss had 13 steals that helped it score 28 of its 39 points on layups or in the lane in the second half.
Melson (11 points, seven assists, six rebounds) and Black set the tone by combining for five steals. Melson had both of her steals and a drive-and-draw assist for a three-point play by Elizabeth Robertson (11 points), Black had a steal and a layup, and Byrd (12 points, nine rebounds) converted two offensive rebound putbacks in a game-changing 14-4 run that helped Ole Miss erase a 38-35 lead. The lead grew to as many as seven, 49-42, before MSU cut it to 49-48 on a 3-pointer by Rack with 7 minutes, 19 seconds to play.
But Black attacked and scored on a three-point play, made a steal and scored another layup, and then hit a 3-pointer off a pass from Melson to kick the lead to 57-50 with 5:59 remaining. The spurt gave the Lady Rebels the cushion they needed and helped them shoot 57.7 percent (15 of 26) in the second half.
"We weren''t the Mississippi team that showed up Sunday (and beat then-No. 12 LSU)," Melson said. "We didn''t have that drive. We thought we could just do it off just showing up. We came to find out we''re not that good unless we play defense and we work together. In the second half, we didn''t want to lose, and we didn''t want to be a one-hit wonder."
Said Ladner, "They got hungry, they got determined, and they took control of the game. It is way too early to decide who is going to be in the top four or the top six (in the league), but we have been just digging and clawing, and, again, I credit my players for their hare work and their desire to win."
For MSU, it was another showing with unexplained passivity and uncharacteristic lapses of execution. Coming off a 55-52 loss to Florida on Sunday in Starkville, MSU played solid defense against Thomas, who came in as the SEC''s leading scorer at 22.9 points per game, but it gave away the ball too many times (18 turnovers) and failed to build on a solid five-plus minute stretch at the end of the first half.
The Lady Bulldogs (12-7, 3-3) received solid contributions from Bethany Washington and Ashley Jones at the end of the half and used a 10-0 run to take a 31-27 halftime lead.
Armelie Lumanu and Mary Kathryn Govero, who were saddled with foul trouble, played bigger roles in the second half, but MSU failed to attack the Lady Rebels'' matchup zone that extended to cover the wings.
"You have to really give credit to Ole Miss," MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said. "They really took it at us down the stretch. They played tough."
Fanning-Otis again talked about a lack of communication and how the Lady Bulldogs weren''t connected on the floor. The work rate also wasn''t where the Lady Bulldogs will need it to be if they want to remain a contender in the regular-season title hunt.
MSU senior guard Alexis Rack had 13 of her 19 points in the first half. She led the charge with five points in the run at the end of the first half in which MSU played its best ball. But she said the Lady Bulldogs continued to hurt themselves with mistakes.
"In the second half they got some momentum and I guess we just kept letting them keep turning the corner and taking the ball to the paint," Rack said. "Our offense was stagnant. I don''t understand why."
Fanning-Otis complimented Ole Miss for playing smart together and for "putting heat" on the ball. She said MSU, which plays Sunday at Vanderbilt, will go back to work to find ways to break the pattern before it gets to be a trend.
"They made things happen tonight," Fanning-Otis said. "We were going east-west or back out instead of penetrating the ball," Fanning-Otis said. "We only shot (a season-low) four free throws. You''re going to have to take it at somebody."
n NOTE: Ole Miss held a 36-25 edge in rebounding. .. Thomas was one off her season-high in turnovers with six. ... Washington played a season-high 15 minutes, while Jones (17), a freshman, was two shy of matching her career-best. ... Ole Miss had a 32-20 edge in points in the paint.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.