January 6, 2011 8:42:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Diamber Johnson knew what she was going to face this season.
While it was wonderful to be a part of a backcourt that included All-Southeastern Conference performers Alexis Rack and Armelie Lumanu and be a part of a run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament last season, somewhere in the back of Johnson''s mind she realized she would move on to center stage in the 2010-11 season.
Johnson is spending a lot of time in the spotlight, too.
The Mississippi State junior guard is second in the Southeastern Conference in minutes played (36.7 per game), followed closely by senior teammate Mary Kathryn Govero, who is third at 35.7.
"Going through almost 40 minutes a game is something my body hasn''t been used to," Johnson said. "I am not where I need to be. I am getting there and we''re running a lot more in practice. It is something I am working on outside of practice and at practice."
The number of minutes Johnson will see figures to go up starting at 7 tonight when the MSU women''s basketball team (8-4) travels to Nashville, Tenn., to take on Vanderbilt (9-5) in its SEC opener.
MSU is coming off 68-59 overtime loss to Lehigh in the championship game of the Lehigh Christmas City Classic in Bethlehem, Pa., on Dec. 30. Johnson and Porsha Porter paced the Lady Bulldogs with 17 points apiece, but Johnson was 7 of 26 from the field (3 of 14 from 3-point range. One of those misses came on the final shot of regulation with a chance to win the game. Johnson leads the team at 12.3 ppg. She is shooting 34.7 percent from the field, while Govero (11.8 ppg.) is shooting 39.6 percent.
"I wasn''t forcing anything. They were good shots," Johnson said. "It wasn''t like I was bricking completely."
MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said she wouldn''t have done anything differently by having Johnson take the final shot. She said MSU will try to find Johnson and Govero as many breaks as possible, but both players know their experience will be needed as much as possible now that the SEC season has started.
Fanning-Otis said Porter, a junior college transfer, Katia May, a freshman guard, and sophomore guard Darriel Gaynor, who has just returned from a knee injury, also will factor into the rotation, and that the team must rely on a balanced approach if it wants to be more successful.
"Everybody should continue to get better," Fanning-Otis said. "We''re still learning together, and Diamber and MKat know the cards that are dealt. They are just going to have to step up."
MSU is 11th in the SEC in scoring (60.4 ppg.) and in field goal percentage (38.4 percent). Those numbers, as well as MSU''s No. 1 ranking in scoring defense (53.8 ppg.) figure to be put to the test in the 16-game SEC schedule.
As a result, MSU will need bigger contributions from players like Porter (8.7 ppg.), junior forward Ashley Brown (8.4 ppg.) and junior center Catina Bett (7.2 ppg.), who has played in six games after becoming eligible at the end of the first semester.
"We just have to work a little harder and hustle more because that is what we''re lacking right now: Toughness," Brown said. "We have to try to outrebound the other team and play better defense."
Brown said Lehigh "outworked" MSU in its final game of 2010. She said the game has served as motivation for the team coming back to work. She said everyone knows their role and will have to raise their levels of play.
"I feel I have been lacking as far as scoring more," Brown said. "I have to get into better position to get the rebounds and to get putbacks."
Brown has been a source of energy, especially around the basket, by helping MSU get multiple rebounds and looks at the basket. She hopes she can continue to provide that boost for her teammates.
Fanning-Otis said the team has to do a better job with shot selection and taking care of the basketball. She also is looking for the team to get tougher.
"You''re going to have to be working on all cylinders to win in the league because you know everybody steps up their game," Fanning-Otis said.
Johnson said the team is "getting there" and has to avoid foul trouble to key players, which affects rotations and its productivity. She said she is anxious to get back to action to put the lessons the team has learned to use.
"All of those games we were put into different situations and we know what we did wrong and what we did right," Johnson said. "Put in that situation again I think we will win or have a better outcome."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.