March 16, 2009
The destination is ...
The Mississippi State women''s basketball team hasn''t faced much drama the past five years in March,
This year is different.
The only drama the Lady Bulldogs will face tonight is discovering where they will play their first-round opponent in the NCAA tournament.
The Lady Bulldogs will gather at 6 tonight at the Templeton Athletic Academic Center to watch the NCAA women''s basketball tournament selection show on ESPN.
At 22-9, MSU has its most victories since the 2002-03 season, the last time it advanced to the NCAA tournament.
There have been close calls since LaToya Thomas'' final season at Mississippi State. Thomas, the school''s all-time leading scorer and a four-time All-American, teamed with Tan White to lead the Lady Bulldogs to a 24-8 record in 2002-03.
This year''s Lady Bulldogs don''t have a star of Thomas'' or White''s caaliber. Instead, they have grown and matured as a basketball team all season. They have showed flashes of brilliance (the first half against LSU in Starkville), glimpses of what it would feel like to finally beat Tennessee, and maddening spurts of inconsistency (the first halves of their games against South Carolina and Alabama).
Through it all, MSU coach Sharon Fanning has cajoled, comforted, cautioned, and chastised in equal parts in attempt the find the right motivation for her team.
Fanning realized early on that the addition of junior college transfers Rima Kalonda, Armelie Lumanu, and Chanel Mokango, who are from Africa, and freshman guard Diamber Johnson made this team different. It had to learn how to communicate, how to play hard, and how to compete in the Southeastern Conference.
Fanning had counted on the return of senior guard Marneshia Richard in late December to provide another steadying influence in the backcourt.
But Richard never fully healed from offseason knee surgery, which pushed junior guard Alexis Rack, Lumanu, and Johnson into bigger roles.
Rack became the sixth player in school history to be named first-team All-SEC. Lumanu and Mokango were named to the league''s all-defensive team, and Johnson showed poise beyond her years.
Other players settled into supporting roles. Senior Donnisha Tate provided energy and rebounding as a starter and off the bench. Sophomore guard Mary Kathryn Govero gave the Lady Bulldogs a 3-point shooting threat, first as a starter and then off the bench.
Seniors Robin Porter and Lauren Roberts added valuable leadership and timely hustle plays, and junior Tysheka Grimes added a little bit of attitude and a whole lot of athleticism to give MSU a scoring spark when it needed one.
With Richard expected to return for a redshirt year next season, the Lady Bulldogs figure to have the potential to climb even higher in the SEC standings.
Picked to finish ninth this season, MSU surprised some by finishing 8-6 in the regular season and earning a No. 6 seed in the 12-team conference tournament.
Close calls against Tennessee and Auburn at home could have gone their way, too, but might have been a year too early to realize.
Tonight''s NCAA tournament announcement is the fitting next step for a program on the rise. The lack of a significant number of upsets in conference tournaments should guarantee MSU, which has a Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) or 41 and a Strength of Schedule (SOS) of 65, an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
RPI and SOS are two factors the NCAA tournament selection committee uses to pick the field of 64.
Regardless of its destination, MSU''s accomplishment will satisfy a goal all of the players set at the beginning of the season. It also will help them set the bar even higher for next season.
After all, making the NCAA tournament next season won''t be good enough, just like it won''t be good enough this year for a team hungry to make some noise in March Madness.
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Commercial Dispatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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