March 30, 2010 9:27:00 AM
Even though the Mississippi State women''s basketball team''s season ended Sunday with a 74-71 loss to Florida State in the Sweep 16 of the NCAA tournament, the Lady Bulldogs took the next step.
A year after falling to Ohio State in the second round of the NCAA tournament, MSU upset Ohio State in the same round to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time in the program''s history.
Now comes the tough part.
The Lady Bulldogs accomplished their goal -- and were one or two possessions from reaching the Elite Eight -- thanks to the contributions of seventh seniors. An eighth senior -- Marneshia Richard -- was injured and didn''t play this season.
There is no question MSU will miss the leadership and swagger of Alexis Rack, the excitement and hunger of Tysheka Grimes, the tenacity of Bethany Washington, and the behind-the-scenes work of Channa Campbell. They also will have an extremely difficult time replacing everything junior college transfers Rima Kalonda, Armelie Lumanu, and Chanel Mokango gave to the program.
All three players -- especially Lumanu and Mokango -- raised their level of play this season. In three NCAA tournament games, both players showed they deserve to be included with the nation''s best players.
As tough as it will be to replace all of the things the seniors did for MSU, there is a positive. The growth of Rack and Grimes and Kalonda, Lumanu, and Mokango speaks to the hard work they put in with coach Sharon Fanning-Otis and the Lady Bulldogs coaches. Maturation and improvement are essential elements of a college experience for student-athletes, especially ones like Rack and the three JUCO transfers from Southeastern Illinois, who all entertain dreams of playing professional basketball.
The steps the players took individually should help them realize their goals, which is good news for the MSU coaches.
Not only will a Sweet 16 appearance give them better name brand recognition when they recruit, they also will be able to point to Rack and to Kalonda, Lumanu, and Mokango and say that those players improved, and you can do the same at MSU.
The challenge is daunting. University of Mississippi coach Renee Ladner already has assembled a solid recruiting class for 2010-11 to replace All-SEC performer Bianca Thomas.
MSU coaches also have to contend with the reality Starkville isn''t one of the first destinations the nation''s top recruits think of when they make out their list of possible colleges.
That should change.
The Southeastern Conference is one of the nation''s best conferences. MSU''s upset against Ohio State and Kentucky''s upset of top-seeded Nebraska proved the SEC remains an elite league.
The maturation of seven MSU seniors proved that point in resounding fashion. Now it''s up to the Lady Bulldogs coaches to sell that fact to the next group of standouts who will help the program build on a historic season.
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Commercial Dispatch. Reach him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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