March 18, 2010 9:46:00 AM
Alysha Clark realized early on she wasn''t going to have the size to be a dominant post player.
As someone who came to basketball at a relatively late age, Clark also understood she needed to master the "little things" if she was going to have success in the paint.
Those realizations and a fierce work ethic have helped make the 5-foot-10 Clark one of the nation''s best players.
"She is a great player," University of Tennessee women''s basketball coach Pat Summitt said. "You''re talking about somebody who can knock down shots and get shots off even when you''re crowding her. She can score inside and outside, and I think she brings so much confidence to her team. They have a gold mine in that player."
Seventh-seeded Mississippi State (19-12) will see just how effective Clark is in the post at 1:30 p.m. Sunday when it takes on 10th-seeded Middle Tennessee State (25-5) in the first round of the NCAA tournament at the Petersen Events Center in Pittsburgh, Pa.
Clark will enter the game as the nation''s leading scorer (28.7 points per game). She also is fourth in the country in rebounding (11.5 per game) and sixth in the nation in field goal percentage (62.2 percent).
And while MTSU has three other players who have scored their 1,000th career point this season and isn''t a one-player show, Clark is the engine that drives the Blue Raiders.
"She is just special," MTSU coach Rick Insell said. "She great hands and great feet, and her work ethic is just unbelievable."
Insell credits Clark''s high school coaches for helping her learn the fundamentals. Clark said she didn''t get serious about basketball until her sophomore year in high school, and by then she knew she would need to be able to use both hands and to perfect skills like the drop step in the lane and the ability to seal a defender if she was going to be an effective post player.
Clark has excelled and then some when it comes to being a force in the paint.
"Alysha Clark is such a weapon because her game is so versatile," said University of Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell, whose team lost to MTSU 57-51 on Dec. 28. "She can score with either hand, she has a variety of post moves, she can make outside shots, and she is a dominant rebounder for her size. She is a difficult matchup for anybody."
Clark said her game is all about hard work and the time she has invested in mastering fundamentals. She said she needs to use her "basketball IQ" because she knows she isn''t the biggest or fastest player on the court. She said she succeeds because she uses angles, studies defenses, and has a talented group of teammates who give her plenty of options.
Clark also credits Insell, who she called a "very detail-oriented coach", for helping her become a better student of the game. She said Insell often will go over plays in practice for up to 15 minutes until all of the players are in exactly the right spots. That mind-set jells with how Clark plays the game.
"He always says it doesn''t matter how big or fast or strong an opponent is because as long as we execute we can get what we want," Clark said.
Clark said she has come to be just like her coach and enjoys paying attention to the details so she can pick up anything that will give her an advantage.
Clark transferred to MTSU after two seasons at Belmont University, which is in Nashville, Tenn. She had plenty of success there, too, earning Atlantic Sun Player and Freshman of the Year honors in her first year and winning the conference Player of the Year award again as a sophomore.
But Clark said she wanted a bigger challenge, so she sat out a year due to NCAA transfer rules and join MTSU.
Last year, Clark made quite a splash by averaging 27.5 ppg. and earning third-team All-America honors from the Associated Press and honorable mention All-America honors from the Women''s Basketball Coaches Association.
This season, she has continued to impress. In the Sun Belt Conference Tournament, she set league scoring records in three consecutive games (40, 44, and 48 points). Her third performance helped MTSU edge the University of Arkansas at Little Rock 70-68 in overtime to earn the league''s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Now Clark hopes she can help lead the Blue Raiders out of the first round. Last season, MTSU lost to Michigan State 60-59 in East Lansing, Mich. She knows MSU will present a difficult challenge, especially with 6-5 center Chanel Mokango lurking in the post, but Clark is confident she and her teammates will be able to do what they do well.
"She is all business when she is on the court," Insell said. "She is humble and she is not out there to show anybody up. She has a passion for playing and she uses it. That''s what makes her as special as she is."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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