March 16, 2010 9:01:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- The sigh heard in the Templeton Athletic Academic Center at 6:44 p.m. Monday filled the room.
It''s not that the Mississippi State women''s basketball team doubted it would be one of the 64 schools to see its name on ESPN, but the suspense made things interesting.
After waiting 44 minutes and three regions, the ruckus the Lady Bulldogs made when they were one of the final four teams announced was just as loud as the noise made by the Middle Tennessee State women, who were pictured on the TV screen.
The teams will have a chance to see who''s better on the court at 1:30 p.m. Sunday when seventh-seeded MSU (19-12) takes on 10th-seeded MTSU (25-5) at the Petersen Events Center in Pittsburgh, Pa. Second-seeded Ohio State will take on 15th-seeded St. Francis (N.Y.) in the other first-round game in the Dayton Regional The winners of the first-round game will meet Tuesday for a chance to advance to the Sweet 16.
"Seeds are out the window at this time," MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said. "We saw that last year. You have to play your best basketball. That''s it. Pure and simple, regardless of your opponent and regardless of where it is."
The bid is MSU''s second in a row. The Lady Bulldogs were seeded 11th last season and upset sixth-seeded Texas in the first round and lost to third-seeded Ohio State in the second round in Columbus, Ohio.
MSU senior guard Alexis Rack stood and pointed at the screen when Ohio State and St. Francis (N.Y.) were the final teams announced. While the Lady Bulldogs would welcome a chance to play Ohio State again, they know they will face a big challenge against MTSU, the Sun Belt Conference champions.
"It''s funny how they set up the bracket. That''s what I was pointing at," Rack said. "We''re taking it one game at a time, and, hopefully, we will play our best and get past the first game."
Led by Alysha Clark, the nation''s leading scorer at 28.7 points per game, the Lady Blue Raiders defeated the University of Arkansas at Little Rock 70-68 in overtime to win the conference''s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Clark set the conference scoring record in three consecutive games, pouring in 40, 44, and 48 points in the title game to help her team get back to the Big Dance.
Last season, Michigan State edged MTSU 60-59 in a first-round NCAA tournament game in East Lansing, Mich.
MSU hasn''t played MTSU since 1990, but it has more recent history with Clark, who started her career at Belmont. Clark had 19 points and 20 rebounds in Belmont''s 67-60 victory against MSU on Nov. 20, 2006, in Starkville. Clark transferred to MTSU after that season and had to sit out a year.
"We have seen the success she has carried Middle Tennessee through, but it is a great team," Fanning-Otis said. "It is a multi-dimensional team that is well coached and plays very hard. We will have to play our best basketball."
MSU is coming off a 1-1 showing last weekend at the Southeastern Conference Tournament. Thanks a tiebreaker that gave the Lady Bulldogs (9-7 in the SEC in the regular season) the No. 3 seed, they earned a first-round bye and then defeated Georgia in the quarterfinals before losing to Kentucky in the semifinals.
Despite two losses to MSU, Georgia still managed to receive a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament, while Vanderbilt, another team MSU defeated twice, earned a No. 6 seed.
Those teams were the first SEC teams announced. MSU expected to hear its name called as a No. 6 to a No. 9 seed, but the drama continued to build after it failed to be called in the first three regions.
LSU, as a No. 7 seed in the Memphis Region, was the fifth SEC team. (Tennessee, No. 1 seed, and Kentucky, No. 4 seed, also were selected.)
When Temple and James Madison were slotted as the No. 8 and the No. 9 seeds in the Dayton Region, the last region announced, MSU knew it had to be a No. 6 or a No. 7 seed. St. John''s earned the No. 6 seed and was paired against 11th-seeded Princeton, which left MSU to wait nearly to the end of the hour-long broadcast to discover its fate.
Rack felt MSU was a little underrated as a No. 7 seed, but she said the same thing happened last season, and the Lady Bulldogs took care of business on the court. She admitted to feeling a little anxiety before she saw MSU called.
Rack hopes the experience the team gained last season will help it this week as it prepares for a return trip to the NCAA tournament.
"It will help us know how hard we have to play and with how much intensity we have to have and how we need to play for 40 minutes," Rack said.
Senior Tysheka Grimes also said she felt a little nervous after not seeing MSU called earlier in the telecast. Still, the senior forward remained confident as all of the SEC teams were called.
"Coach Fanning-Otis and I were talking and we figured we probably would be in the range of playing (top-seeded) UConn (as a No. 8 or as a No. 9 seed)," Grimes said. "But after that passed and the lower bracket came along we thought would be in that area."
As a higher seed this season, people might expect MSU to advance to the second round. But Grimes said those numbers don''t mean anything and that the Lady Bulldogs will have to be focused because MTSU can do to them what they did last year to Texas.
"There is lot on our shoulders right now," Grimes said. "We just have to remember what our goal is and not to feel too pressured. Our goal is to win and to work hard."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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