March 22, 2010 4:53:00 PM
PITTSBURGH -- The look said Mississippi State wasn''t going to be denied.
It started in Alexis Rack''s eyes after the senior guard made a 3-pointer with 4 minutes, 3 seconds to play.
Before she knew it, the look became infectious, and just in the nick of time.
With Rack and Armelie Lumanu combining to score the team''s final 13 points and Diamber Johnson and Chanel Mokango providing key defensive plays, seventh-seeded MSU waited until the final minute to grab its first lead and then held on for a 68-64 victory against 10th-seeded Middle Tennessee State on Sunday in the first round of the NCAA tournament at the Petersen Events Center.
With the victory, MSU (20-12) advances to play second-seeded Ohio State at 6 p.m. Tuesday. Ohio State beat 15th-seeded St. Francis (Pa.) 93-59 to make it to the second round.
MSU lost to Ohio State 64-58 last season in the second round of the NCAA tournament in Columbus, Ohio.
"We''re pleased we made a stand and we found a way to win," MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said. "I felt we did it totally as a team. I felt like down the stretch (we had) the look we have to have to continue from this game and in the next game."
An ankle injury to senior forward Tysheka Grimes might have brought out the look that helped the Lady Bulldogs rally. Leading 61-55, MTSU (25-6) capitalized after Grimes twisted her left ankle and used a 3-pointer by Anne Marie Lanning (11 points) on the five-on-four set to take a nine-point lead with 4:39 to play.
But Rack, who has been MSU''s leader all season, ignited one of the best comebacks in program history by hitting a 3-pointer off an assist from Mary Kathryn Govero.
Known for her 3-point shooting prowess (she is the school''s all-time leader with 331), Rack then went into slow motion. With the ball in her hands at the top of the key, Rack (game-high 21 points, team-high five assists) maneuvered through the defense for layups on consecutive possessions to tie the score at 64 with 1:26 to play.
"We have eight seniors and it was now or never," Rack said. "If we were going to win, it was going to be then and there, and we turned it up.
"I just took whatever was open. Chanel set good screens and they gave me the lane, so I took it."
Rack''s spark brought the look to Johnson. The sophomore guard, who played a heady 31 minutes, went high into the air on a MTSU inbounds pass to force a turnover that led the game-winning points.
With less than 40 seconds to go, Rack controlled the ball on the right wing and fed Lumanu (12 points), who took contact and shook off the memory of misses on similar shots earlier in the game and kissed a shot off the glass to give MSU a 66-64 lead, its first of the game.
"When (Rack) tried to penetrate next to me I just went up and got the lob and got the ball," Lumanu said. "They still pushed me, but that is what they call toughness. You have to be tough, you have to strong, and you have to be confident. I wasn''t thinking foul or anything else. I was just thinking score."
The look carried to the defensive end to Mokango. The senior center, who had 20 points and a career-high 14 rebounds, stayed tough on the block against Alysha Clark, the nation''s leading scorer at 28.7 points per game, and failed to yield. Mokango''s willingness to use her body to deny Clark position contributed to a turnover on the entry pass with 16 seconds remaining.
Lumanu then helped close it out. With only three team fouls, MTSU was forced to foul four times to put MSU in the one-and-one bonus. Lumanu, who shot 57 percent from the free-throw line as a junior, showed she is much steadier than a 61-percent shooter this season by hitting two free throws with 3.3 seconds left to seal the deal.
The plays in the final four-plus minutes reflected a connected toughness Fanning-Otis has stressed all season. For much of the game, it didn''t look like MSU would find that level of play, or play with the look it needed.
Rack''s dagger from 3-point range helped provide the spark the Lady Bulldogs needed to recapture a look that MTSU wasn''t able to match.
"Rack just made some plays," MTSU coach Rick Insell said. "We knew she had great range and she stepped up and knocked a couple of shots down. We had a hand on the ball and were in pretty good position. When we stepped on out, she was able to break us down. AC (Clark) had four fouls and we really didn''t want her to foul and Brandi (Brown) couldn''t get over to help and she got a couple of chip shots. "
Insell said the Lady Blue Raiders had opportunities in the first half to put the game away but failed to make shots they characteristically make. MTSU shot 10 of 39 (25.6 percent) in the first half, including a 5-of-25 effort from 3-point range. The Lady Blue Raiders had their biggest lead, 26-11, with 9:11 remaining in the first half.
But MSU caught a break when Clark (17 points) picked up her third personal foul with 4:13 left in the first half and MTSU leading 27-17. MSU capitalized by going on an 11-3 run to close the half to take the momentum into the locker room.
Still, MSU never put it all together. The Lady Bulldogs tied the game at 34 early in the second half, failed on two chances to take the lead midway through the half, and then fell behind 58-48 on a 3-pointer by Jackie Pickel (11 points, six assists) with 7:48 left.
Insell praised MSU for its lateral quickness and using it to help on Clark down low and to get back out to the perimeter shooters. Still, he said the Lady Blue Raiders'' inability to make more shots in the first half would have made it a different game.
"I believe we were 10 of 39 at halftime," Insell said. "We should have been 20 of 39."
And even though MTSU had five players score in double figures, hit 12 3-pointers, had 19 assists, and controlled much of the action, MSU had the final say thanks to the power of a look.
"You have to find a way to win," Fanning-Otis said. "Sometimes it may not be pretty and sometimes you might think how in the world, but you have to keep plugging and believe and expect, and it has to be together. ... I was very, very, very proud they did pull together as a team and they stayed after it and found a way down the stretch to make the plays."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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