January 24, 2010 12:25:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- The time to find solutions is running out.
Two-game losing streaks in January don''t ruin a season''s worth of work.
But when your ultimate goal is to get back to the NCAA tournament, losing skids at this time of the season can be devastating.
The Mississippi State women''s basketball team is in danger of allowing back-to-back losses to become something greater.
The Lady Bulldogs (12-7, 3-3 Southeastern Conference) will try to prevent that from happening at 2 p.m. today when they play at Vanderbilt (14-5, 3-3).
MSU is coming off a 66-58 loss Thursday at the University of Mississippi. Last Sunday, the Lady Bulldogs dropped a disappointing 55-52 loss to Florida at Humphrey Coliseum. The defeats have erased the momentum from a 3-1 start to conference play that included road victories at Auburn, at home against a Vanderbilt team that was ranked at the time, and at Arkansas.
A loss today for MSU could set the stage for an even bigger losing streak. The Lady Bulldogs play host to No. 8 Georgia, which is coming off a 53-50 victory against No. 3 Tennessee on Thursday, on Thursday and Kentucky (15-3) on Jan. 31.
"I think (the SEC this season) is tougher than top to bottom and there is more parity than I have seen," MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said after the Ole Miss game. "Every game is so very, very important, and you have to play every possession of that game as though it is your last possession. If you let down one time, somebody gets an advantage."
Ole Miss attacked on both ends of the floor to improve to 4-1 in the SEC. The Rebels forced 18 turnovers, held the Lady Bulldogs to 43.4 percent shooting, won the rebounding battle (35-25), and held a 32-20 edge in points in the paint.
Ole Miss also seemed to play with an urgency MSU has been unable to deliver for 40 minutes in SEC play. The Lady Bulldogs played strong second halves against Auburn, Arkansas, and Vanderbilt but have fought slow starts in the past six games, and all season.
The most recent results leave MSU with a Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) of 78 and a Strength of Schedule (SOS) of 76, according to Collegerpi.com. The NCAA tournament selection committee uses those numbers as factors when it decides the at-large teams that earn bids to the NCAA tournament.
MSU''s RPI is eighth in a league that Collegerpi.com has rated as the nation''s fifth best conference. It isn''t likely the SEC will receive more than six, if that many, bids to the NCAA tournament.
The fact that MSU''s victory against Vanderbilt is its only "signature" win of the season to date makes the next stretch of games even more important. A series sweep of Vanderbilt would ensure the Lady Bulldogs any tiebreakers with the Commodores are tied after the SEC''s 16-game regular season schedule. It also would give the team momentum as its prepares for games that could help it improve its NCAA tournament resume. Georgia (18-1) has a RPI of 10, while Kentucky is 45, according to Collegerpi.com.
MSU also has rematches remaining against Auburn, Florida, and Ole Miss and a road game at LSU to end the regular season. Two games against Alabama and a game at South Carolina round out the league schedule.
To accomplish any of that, though, MSU must play more aggressively and find a way to make things easier on itself. The Lady Bulldogs attempted only four free throws against the Rebels, and have tried only 89 in six SEC games. Opponents have gone to the line 100 times.
In addition, Fanning-Otis wants her players to "communicate" better and to find a way to get "connected" on the court. She has used both words the past week after losses.
"I am very disappointed in the team play," Fanning-Otis said after the Florida game. "I felt good about our focus and effort before the game. I am not sure why we weren''t able to play through the possessions. You get ahead in the second half, and I thought we were in position to build on that, but Florida is a team that you have to give credit to on how hard they play. They play very hard, they don''t get tired, they seem not to lose focus if you get on a run.
"It is the focus. It is what do you do after something happens negative. Do you take a great shot? We had some crucial turnovers when it is a one- or two-point game when we are in great position to win a game. That mental focus is not acceptable what I saw today."
Fanning-Otis shared a similar sentiment after the Ole Miss game. While pleased with contributions off the bench from players like senior Bethany Washington and freshman Ashley Jones, she said the Lady Bulldogs have to rebound the ball harder, get more balance on offense, and attack the basket to get easier shots and create chances to go to the free-throw line.
"We have to get tougher as a team," Fanning-Otis said. "We still didn''t make that stand where you say we competed on the boards like you say we''re going to have to compete on the boards."
MSU did many of those things Jan. 7 in a 90-76 victory against Vanderbilt. The Lady Bulldogs used their athleticism to overcome a double-digit deficit in the first half. They earned 27 free throws and shot better than 55 percent in the second half. A 31-point performance from senior guard Alexis Rack led a balanced scoring attack that featured five players in double figures.
Fanning-Otis knows the Lady Bulldogs have to recapture that energy and aggressiveness if they want to reverse their fortunes.
"A team has to take ownership on what is the dash (next to your name) when you finish here," Fanning-Otis said. "What do you want that line to be? I think they have to communicate on how hard they''re going to work, how hard we''re going to practice, and how important every possession is. I think a team has to make that decision, step up and say I am tired of losing."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.