March 22, 2010 4:51:00 PM
PITTSBURGH -- Chanel Mokango is probably tired of hearing the word toughness.
For two years, Mississippi State women''s basketball coaches have begged, prodded and pleaded with Mokango to play like the dominant post player they believed she could be.
On Sunday, Mokango delivered the toughest effort of her MSU career.
The 6-foot-5 senior center scored 20 points, grabbed a career-high 14 rebounds and played solid defense on Alysha Clark, the nation''s leading scorer, to help seventh-seeded MSU rally for a 68-64 victory against 10th-seeded Middle Tennessee in the first round of the NCAA tournament at the Petersen Events Center.
"I think she worked the whole game," MSU senior guard Alexis Rack said of Mokango. "As soon as the coaches said something, she adjusted to it and she knew we had her back. She just played her heart out and it showed."
MSU needed Mokango, the school''s all-time leading shot blocker with 176, to contain Clark, who came into the game averaging 28.7 points per game. At 5-10, Clark isn''t the tallest post player in the country, but she is a master of positioning and the beneficiary of a disciplined half-court offense that seemingly can enter a pass to the post from an angle.
Mokango guarded Clark for most of the game and combated Clark''s attempts to seal her behind her by moving, pushing, and fighting to get over the top and into the passing lanes to make things difficult.
"She tried to front me most of the night to keep me from getting touches," Clark said. "She is like 6-5 so her wingspan makes it difficult to shoot over."
Clark fouled out with 3.3 seconds to play with a team-high 17 points on 7-of-17 shooting from the field.
Mokango had both of her blocked shots against Clark, but her best defensive play came in the final minute. With MSU leading 66-64, Mokango battled with Clark and prevented her from getting position so she could handle an entry pass that went for a turnover.
MSU assistant coach Greg Franklin, who recruited Mokango, Armelie Lumanu, and Rima Kalonda to Southeastern Illinois College in 2006-07, punctuated the effort by slapping hands with Mokango for her hard work in a timeout following the turnover.
"Coach was telling me to stay strong and I said, ''I am trying,'' " Mokango said. "My teammates were telling me to play my best defense and I said, ''I got you.'' "
Mokango''s effort drew high praise from Lumanu.
"She played good," Lumanu said. "In the first half, I was like, ''Chanel, this girl is the same size as me and you''re 6-5. I know she is the best and give her credit, but we need you to defend.'' ... She was like, ''I have got you.'' That is the best offensive and defensive game she has played."
Defensive gem by Johnson
Diamber Johnson has shown a knack for running an offense without making a mistake.
Johnson showed late in the second half she also can make a game-changing defensive play.
With the game tied at 64, Johnson came up with a steal on an inbounds pass to give the ball back to the Lady Bulldogs. The steal helped set up Lumanu''s bank shot that proved to be the game-winner.
"We had watched the play on film and I could tell by the way Chanel was denying Clark, for some reason I knew it was going up," Johnson said. "I just anticipated it and I was right."
Johnson only had two points, but she had four assists and no turnovers in 31 minutes, many of which came against full-court pressure.
"I was proud of Diamber," MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said. "She ended up with four assists and zero turnovers. That''s important even though she didn''t score a lot of points. She gave us some quality minutes and a big steal late."
Johnson said teamwork was the key to the Lady Bulldogs'' comeback from a 58-48 second-half deficit. She said MSU never doubted it was going to win the game.
That confidence helps Johnson play with poise beyond her years.
"Diamber has played great all year, and she continues to get better," Rack said. "It was a big steal, and I think she played great the whole game."
MTSU coach Rick Insell credited MSU''s athleticism for playing a role in forcing his team into an uncharacteristic mistake.
"We had called what we call an X play," Insell said. "The pass was probably a little late and it was nobody''s fault. It was probably the only turnover we have had all year with that pass. It was just an athletic play they were able to make."
Satisfying ending for Franklin
Franklin has lurched and slouched with every move his former Southeastern Illinois College standouts have made in two seasons at MSU.
Earlier this month, Franklin joked he probably was too negative when it came to breaking down the improvements each of the three players from Kinshasa, Congo, have made in their stay in the United States.
On Sunday, Franklin preferred to slap hands with Mokango and Lumanu, and hand out plenty of praise. First, he congratulated Mokango for her hard work on the block against Clark with 16 seconds to play.
"Us winning the basketball game and us having a chance to win the basketball game was predicated on whether she was going to be able to guard Clark," Franklin said. "We talk about toughness and defense is what? It is just toughness. There is a little skill involved in that. You have to know certain things and what you have to do to complete a play, but after that, you''re asking somebody to do something that is just not natural. It is not that gratifying. You don''t get all of the glory like you would if you make shots or make great passes. The oohs and the aahs are for the blocked shots not just the fundamentally sound, great, hard-nosed, tough defense."
Franklin then gave Lumanu a double high five after she made two free throws with 3.3 seconds remaining to seal the victory.
"The biggest thing I was so pleased with both of them was they were successful at weaknesses they had when they first arrived," Franklin said. "With Armelie, it is her free throw shooting. To make those two big free throws and to know where she has come from in terms of being a really good free throw shooter and not being so good and making those two to help us win, that was really satisfying to see the progression they have made."
Lumanu said her extra work on free throw shooting after practice this season helped her know she would be able to make both.
"(Coach Franklin) was telling me since I was in Illinois, ''Keep shooting, keep shooting,'' " Lumanu said. "I kept shooting, and I felt like today everyone was like, ''Armelie, please make them.'' I think God helped me think about when everybody would go home and I would stay in the gym and keep shooting, keep shooting, keep shooting. I was confident in myself because I was still in the gym shooting."
Lumanu also delivered prior to hitting the free throws when she took a pass from Rack and converted a shot on the block to give MSU its first lead of the game at 66-64.
"It was just a screen up top, and I think I had like three people on me, and I thought she was one-on-one on the block," Rack said. "She is extremely athletic, so I don''t think too many people can stop her on the block, and she turned around and made the layup."
This and that
MSU improved to 5-5 all-time in the NCAA tournament. The Lady Bulldogs have advanced to the second round in their last five appearances. ... MSU improved to 5-9 when it trails at halftime and 6-6 against ranked teams. MTSU was No. 24 in the latest USA Today/ESPN Top 25. ... With 99 3-pointers this season, Rack is six 3-pointers away from the all-time single-season mark of 105 set by Cornelia Gayden in 1995.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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