December 17, 2010 8:31:00 AM
Statistically, the Mississippi State women''s basketball team ranks with the nation''s top programs.
Coming off a victory against Southern Mississippi on Wednesday, MSU (6-2) is allowing only 51.2 points a game, which is 25th nationally. The Lady Bulldogs also lead the Southeastern Conference in field goal percentage defense (32 percent), which is 12th nationally.
Those numbers will be put to the test at 6 tonight when MSU takes on No. 5 Xavier (9-0) at the Cintas Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.
The matchup is the first true national test for MSU, which went 21-13 last season and advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history.
"(They) are one of the best teams in the country," MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said. "It gives our kids an opportunity to understand how (the Southeastern Conference) will be. Nationally, if we want to progress and if we''re thinking about the NCAA tournament, this is the type of team that we''re going to be competing against. It will be a great challenge for us."
This year''s team has a much different look, though, than the one that lost to Xavier 81-60 last season in Cincinnati. The Lady Bulldogs are relying on junior guard Diamber Johnson (team-leading 13.6 points per game), senior guard Mary Kathryn Govero (11.4 ppg.) and junior college transfer Ashley Brown (10.3 ppg., 10.8 rebounds per game).
Govero has been slowed of late by a sprained ankle she suffered Dec. 1 in a loss to Louisiana Tech in Starkville. Fanning-Otis said Thursday that Govero still isn''t 100 percent, which means other players will need to play bigger roles.
Junior Danielle Rector did that Wednesday in the 50-40 victory against Southern Miss. Rector came off the bench to score 11 points in 10 minutes.
"She was in the right place at the right time," Fanning-Otis said. "She understands the game, positioning, and finishing. ... She is going to be a coach, she has a great touch, and she knows how to get position off people."
Junior center Catina Bett also earned her first start of the season against Southern Miss. The transfer from the University of Kentucky had seven points and eight rebounds in 26 minutes.
"She helped us yesterday," Fanning-Otis said. "They collapsed on her and double-teamed her and made it hard."
Fanning-Otis anticipates a difficult test tonight against an experienced team that was a missed layup away from advancing to the Final Four last season. Senior Amber Harris (19.8 ppg.) leads four in double figures for Xavier. Senior center Ta''Shia Phillips averages 14.8 points and 11.7 rebounds, while Katie Rutan averages 11.3 points and Tyeasha Moss averages 10.2.
That''s where she hopes the team''s defense will be up for the test. On Wednesday, MSU held Southern Miss to 21.3-percent shooting, and a 12-percent effort (3 of 25) in the second half. The Lady Bulldogs also forced 22 turnovers.
Fanning-Otis called the defensive effort "great" and that she was pleased with the effort. Still, she knows there is plenty of room for the team to improve, especially in the assist-to-turnover ratio. MSU had seven assists to 16 turnovers against Southern Miss.
"That is a huge stat that has to change as we get into the league," Fanning-Otis said.
Fanning-Otis said MSU continues to learn how to be more patient on offense and to make the easy passes to get easier shots. She feels the process will take time but is confident the results will come.
"We just want us to play very hard and compete," Fanning-Otis said. "We have to learn ways to win. With a team like (Xavier) it is a great challenge a day or so after playing. That is why we did it. It is going to be a tremendous opportunity to win a big game."
MSU will play host to Mississippi Valley State at 7 p.m. Monday in its final home game of 2010.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.