January 29, 2010 9:31:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- The push is on to make the NCAA tournament.
For the first 37 minutes Thursday night, the Mississippi State women''s basketball team looked like a team that was connected, alert, and focused on realizing that goal.
More importantly, MSU played with the aggressiveness and the attacking mind-set it will need to get there.
Alexis Rack had a game-high 34 points as MSU played one of its best first halves of the season en route to a 74-66 victory against No. 9 Georgia before a crowd of 1,071 at Humphrey Coliseum.
Not only did the victory move MSU (14-7, 5-3 Southeastern Conference) into a tie with Georgia (18-3, 5-3) in the league standings, but it also allowed MSU to record a victory against a top-10 team for the first time since it defeated No. 9 Florida on Feb. 18, 2001.
"We always have known what it takes to win, and I guess you see it setting in, especially with the eight seniors," Rack said. "Everybody just has that alertness and is coming out ready and focused."
Little things at the start of the game showed MSU was ready. Senior guard Armelie Lumanu (15 points, seven rebounds, four assists, two steals) attacked the basket and stayed in control, Chanel Mokango (14 points, five rebounds, five blocked shots) was active and involved on both ends of the floor, and Rack had a game-changing performance (9 of 17 from the field, including 7 of 10 from 3-point range) despite a game-high seven turnovers.
But MSU also threw the first punch on defense. Lumanu used her length and quickness to bottle up senior guard Ashley Houts. Georgia''s leading scorer (12.6 points per game) had only eight points on 2-of-15 shooting. Rack shadowed freshman Jasmine James, Georgia''s second-leading scorer (11.9 ppg.), and limited her scoring opportunities. James finished with seven points on 3-of-12 shooting.
Those factors combined in a first half that saw MSU shoot 53.6 percent and hold a 19-13 edge in rebounding.
"I am very, very proud of this team win," MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said. "I was very, very proud of the first half. I felt like we made things happen and I thought defensively we were able to change defenses. Everyone who got into the game was really working to get into position and to help us."
The connectedness Fanning-Otis said has been missing this month stayed intact through much of the second half. A perfect example came on Rack 3-pointer that rattled home to cap a 13-6 run to give MSU its largest lead, 64-48, with 4 minutes, 37 seconds to play.
Lumanu set the play up by driving the lane in a controlled manner and kicking the ball to the right wing to an open Rack.
"I tried to be more aggressive on offense," Lumanu said. "I decided to attack them. When I attack them, I know my shooters."
Lumanu said she tries to remember how Fanning-Otis tells her to be balanced. When she is, she said she is able to control her body and to put her self in position to see the floor.
Rack said Lumanu''s ability to stay balanced enabled both players to help set the tone for the team with aggressive play.
"We''re coming together more as a team," Rack said. "Everyone is stepping their game up and we''re just playing well. We want to continue to grow and get better."
Georgia had edges in every statistical category -- (26-18 in points in the paint, 14-6 points off turnovers, 18-11 second-chance points, and 12-2 points off bench). The only one MSU had the advantage in was fast-break points (4-0).
But the work MSU did in the first half and in the first part of the second half to build its lead was enough to help it hold on, even after several hiccups down the stretch against Georgia''s pressure defense.
"They got us in transition (in the first half)," Georgia coach Andy Landers said. "In the second half, we defended pretty well. They only had seven field goals, but Rack shot it terrificly from three, we put them on the line, and they hit all of their free throws . End of story."
Georgia trimmed the deficit to 68-64 on an Ashley Robinson layup with 54 seconds remaining. But Landers'' team hit only 5 of 13 free throws in the final 3:07 and failed to capitalize on an opportunity to steal a victory without Houts, who tweaked an ankle and didn''t play the final six minutes.
"It was a desperate effort," Landers said of his team''s rally. "Mississippi State had blown out to a 12- or 14-point lead and they probably relaxed a little bit and we jumped them at a point in time they''re not prepared for it. ... We did some good things, but Mississippi State didn''t do the things it wanted to do. The last five minutes the kids did a nice job of creating some scoring opportunities and a horrible job of shooting free throws."
n NOTES: Senior Tysheka Grimes dressed out for the game. Fanning-Otis said Grimes, who hasn''t played in a SEC game this season, still is a while away from returning from a foot injury that has sidelined her. ... MSU (23 of 29) attempted its most free throws in a game this season since it went 17 of 34 in an 88-53 victory against Mississippi Valley State on Dec. 16. ... Georgia had 15 offensive rebounds in the second half and edged MSU 41-40 in the rebounding battle.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.