February 14, 2010 12:18:00 AM
One game isn''t going to make the Mississippi State women''s basketball team''s season.
But another favorable result today like the one the Lady Bulldogs earned Thursday night should go a long way to helping them receive a valuable reward.
Thanks to a 55-53 victory at South Carolina, MSU (16-9, 7-5 Southeastern Conference) jumped from a four-way tie for fifth place to third place in the SEC standings.
The move is significant because the top four teams at the end of the regular season will earn first-round byes for the SEC Tournament on March 4-7 in Duluth, Ga.
MSU will try to continue to separate itself from the rest of the pack at 4:25 p.m. today (ESPN2) when it plays host to the University of Mississippi (15-9, 6-5) at Humphrey Coliseum.
The matchup also is a "Think Pink" game to support breast cancer awareness. The game will be sponsored by the OCH Breast and Health Imaging. The MSU President''s Commission on the Status of Women will provide pink shoelaces, headbands, and wristbands.
MSU doesn''t have much margin for error as it winds down the regular season. Vanderbilt, Florida, and Ole Miss are tied for fourth at 6-5, South Carolina and Georgia are tied at 6-6, and LSU is at 5-6 in the league.
After today''s game against Ole Miss, MSU has games remaining against Auburn (Feb. 21 at home), at Alabama (Feb. 25), and at LSU (Feb. 28). The Lady Bulldogs defeated Auburn and Alabama earlier this season. They swept LSU last season, but LSU drubbed Florida 70-30 on Thursday.
MSU would like a victory today to keep it ahead of Florida, which it lost twice to this season, and prevent a season sweep by Ole Miss, which would drop the Lady Bulldogs behind two teams in the event of a tiebreaker.
MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said all SEC games are important at this stage, and that the Lady Bulldogs continue to push to find ways to win games, to play hard and together, and to execute. She said the team''s victory Thursday was impressive because it outlasted a good team on its home floor that had been playing well.
But Fanning-Otis also knows things won''t be ay easier today just because MSU is at home.
"I see us still competing and learning, and I see us growing as a team," Fanning-Otis said, "but I see Ole Miss has grown, too, as well as everybody else in the league."
Fanning-Otis said focus will be imperative if the Lady Bulldogs are going to rise above the parity in the SEC that she said is "beyond description." To avoid getting caught in the flip flopping, Fanning-Otis hopes her players understand every possession in each game could be the difference in seeding come tournament time.
Senior guard Alexis Rack understands what the Lady Bulldogs have to do. Rack snapped out of a 10-for-60 shooting slump (6-for-37 from 3-point range) by going 6 of 14 from the field and scoring a team-high 15 points against South Carolina.
Rack said she didn''t think during the game against South Carolina how a victory would help the Lady Bulldogs in the SEC standings. She admitted, though, to examining the standings when she got to the team bus for the ride to the airport.
"It was a very important win because we had the same record as three teams and we would have just went further to the bottom of the SEC (if we would have lost)," Rack said. "(When she got back to the bus), I was happy with where we moved and definitely excited about the win."
MSU trailed 39-33 with 7 minutes, 45 seconds to go in regulation before using a 13-0 run to gain control. South Carolina had two chances to tie the game in the final minutes, but MSU held on.
Rack said the Lady Bulldogs need to put teams away when they get a chance. She said she and her teammates remain focused on winning, and that she believes everything will fall into place if everyone has the right mind-set.
"I think we have to get more focused and try not to start slacking," Rack said. "If we do (slack off), we need to regroup quicker."
Ole Miss capitalized on MSU''s change in energy level in the first meeting. The Rebels shot 57.7 percent in the second half, forced 18 turnovers, and held a 35-25 edge in rebounding.
Rack said she remembers the Lady Bulldogs not being the aggressor, especially in the second half. She said she doesn''t feel MSU has anything to prove today, but coming off a season sweep of Ole Miss last season, she knows what a victory today would mean for her team.
Fanning-Otis also knows how much a victory against Ole Miss would help her team. She said the Lady Bulldogs are focused on not committing the same mistakes today that they made in the first meeting against the Lady Rebels.
"I felt like we didn''t take care of the basketball like we needed to," Fanning-Otis said. "We''re going to have to adjust as they change defenses and trap. We''re going to have to have connected toughness. Our turnovers and our lack of communication handling some ball screens, which allowed them open shots, sort of broke us and they grew that in the last few minutes of the game. Ole Miss picked up the intensity and played a lot harder and we weren''t able to adjust to that."
After starting conference play 5-1, Ole Miss has dropped four of its past five games. The Lady Rebels are coming off a 61-58 loss to Tennessee on Thursday in Oxford. Bianca Thomas, the SEC''s leading scorer, paces Ole Miss with 21.1 points a game. Junior Kayla Melson is scoring 13.2 points a game.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.