February 23, 2010 10:20:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Senioritis came on the wrong day for the Mississippi State women''s basketball team.
With a chance to solidify its chances to earn a first-round bye to the Southeastern Conference Tournament next month in Duluth, Ga., the Lady Bulldogs played their most uninspired and unfocused game of the season.
Alli Smalley and Auburn were only too happy to take advantage.
Smalley had a game-high 17 points, and Auburn held MSU to a season-low point total and shooting percentage Sunday in a 50-36 victory at Humphrey Coliseum.
The MSU Senior Day crowd watched as the Lady Bulldogs (17-10, 8-6 SEC) shot 14 of 50 (28 percent) against a team it defeated 73-58 on Jan. 3 in Auburn, Ala.
MSU has had disappointing efforts -- at home against Tennessee and Florida -- since then, but those losses weren''t as disheartening as Sunday''s performance.
"I think there were different agendas and not as much team play," MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said. "Auburn played a good game. You have to give credit to their effort. Their effort is the bottom line. Our lack of effort and lack of execution, it was poor."
MSU committed 18 turnovers against an Auburn team (13-14, 4-10) that entered the day on a four-game losing streak and in 11th place in the league standings.
But the Lady Bulldogs looked nothing like the cohesive unit that three players score in double figures and had 16 assists last Sunday in a 73-54 victory against the University of Mississippi.
MSU beat Ole Miss without senior guard Alexis Rack, who returned to the lineup against Auburn. But Rack had only three points on 1 of 7 shooting to snap a 39-game streak of double-figure scoring games.
Rack said the right foot strain that kept her out of the lineup against Ole Miss didn''t affect her. She also said the festivities of the team''s Senior Day, in which eight players and one manager were honored before the game, wasn''t a distraction.
"It was a lack of energy," Rack said. "I think that led to everything else. On the defensive end, we weren''t alert. We let shooters shoot."
The term "connected toughness" Fanning-Otis used to describe the victory against Ole Miss was non-existent Sunday. In its place, the Lady Bulldogs delivered an effort that was disjointed, disengaged, and dispiriting.
Senior center Chanel Mokango (12 points, seven rebounds) was the only MSU player in double figures. Senior Tysheka Grimes had eight points and a season-high 13 rebounds, and Mary Kathryn Govero had nine points on 4 of 12 shooting.
"Our defensive effort is what usually leads to better production on offense," Govero said. "We just weren''t getting stops tonight. You didn''t see the look in everybody''s eyes we needed to win the game, and, as a result, we didn''t."
Fanning-Otis sensed MSU was treading water early in the second half. At the 18-minute, 50-second mark she shouted "pick up the intensity" to the players. One minute, 22 seconds later, she prodded her team again saying, "C''mon guys we have to pick it up."
An offensive rebound putback by Grimes cut the deficit to 26-23 with 17:25 to go in the second half, but MSU went 0-for-15 from the field with four turnovers in the next 10:33 as Auburn used a 15-2 run to blow the game open.
"I can''t believe we held them to 36 points because they''re a very explosive offensive team," Auburn coach Nell Fortner said. "That is impressive to me, whether it is my team or not. Our defense was disruptive."
The Lady Tigers used a lot of player-to-player defense in the first half and switched a lot to deny the Lady Bulldogs space to shoot. Auburn also mixed and matched some zone defense in an effort she said likely was her team''s best of the season.
The result was lights years different than the first meeting, when MSU outscored Auburn 44-28 and shot 51.7 percent in the second half and pulled away for the victory.
Fanning-Otis said the Lady Bulldogs might have thought the first victory meant they were going to duplicate it Sunday. When things got tough, she said her players might have expected they would be able to produce another hot-shooting second half.
Instead, nothing materialized for the Lady Bulldogs, which left Fanning-Otis "ticked" after the game. A lengthy conversation with the players in the locker room followed, as did an even more spirited postgame session with the media.
"Everybody is working to improve," Fanning-Otis said. "Everybody in this dadgum league has character and work ethic and they have all beat somebody right now. For us to come out and play (like we did), it was just poor focus and not good balance together. The bottom line is we didn''t play."
The 36 points were MSU''s third-fewest in a SEC game dating back to a 77-35 loss at No. 1 Auburn on Jan. 11, 1989.
The loss was even more untimely because MSU failed to take another step closer to a top-four finish in the league. A victory by Vanderbilt on Sunday moved it into a tie with MSU for third place. Florida''s victory at home against Georgia left those teams tied at 7-7, with South Carolina and Ole Miss at 6-8.
LSU (7-6) plays at 6 tonight at Tennessee, and could join MSU and Vanderbilt in a logjam near the top. MSU plays at Alabama on Thursday and at LSU on Sunday. It holds the tiebreaker against Vanderbilt and Georgia if the teams are tied at the end of the regular season.
A top-four finish would give MSU a first-round bye for the SEC Tournament on March 4-7.
Fanning-Otis said the Lady Bulldogs need to finish with something positive. She isn''t sure how the players will respond from what she called a very disappointing performance relative to effort.
"We just didn''t collectively play with the urgency you have to play with," Fanning-Otis said.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.