January 10, 2011 8:17:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Lessons usually come easier when student-athletes have complete focus.
But attention to detail typically isn''t a strength of teams packed with inexperienced pieces trying to find their chemistry.
The Mississippi State women''s basketball team learned that lesson again Sunday afternoon.
Trailing by as many as 17 in the second half, MSU rallied in the final seven minutes only to fall short to No. 25 Arkansas 61-56 before a crowd of 972 at Humphrey Coliseum.
"We battled back, but you can''t start to battle after you go through a halftime and decide, ''OK, now I am going to play a little bit harder and I am going to have the courage to get the ball to the rim,'' " MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said.
MSU (8-6, 0-2 Southeastern Conference) used a three-point play by Porsha Porter (seven points) off a pass from Mary Kathryn Govero (nine points) to trim Arkansas'' lead to 57-51 with 1 minute, 30 seconds to play. A 3-pointer by Diamber Johnson (10 points) and another layup by Porter sliced deficits to three points, but Arkansas hit 4 of 5 free throws in the final 27 seconds to seal the deal.
The hard work late in the game couldn''t overcome long stretches of disorganized and lackluster play in the middle. Arkansas used its full- and half-court trapping defense to force MSU into 15 turnovers in the first half. The Razorbacks also held the Lady Bulldogs to 20 percent shooting (6 of 30) in the first half.
MSU''s rally helped it avoid a third-straight game of sub-30-percent shooting from the field. The last time the Lady Bulldogs shot less than 30 percent in consecutive games was the 2005-06 season in losses to South Carolina and Florida.
Arkansas'' defense played a role in MSU shooting 32.8 percent (22 of 67), but the Lady Bulldogs hurt themselves with unforced mistakes, impatience, and an inability to make open shots when they had them.
A lack of aggressiveness, especially against the trapping defense, bothered Fanning-Otis the most. She said the Lady Bulldogs can''t continue to play east-west and have to play north-south and attack teams. She credited freshman guard Katia May (team-high 12 points) for hitting gaps in the defense and creating offense.
"We don''t know each other as a team," Fanning-Otis said. "The main thing is we become more stubborn and tougher and we practice harder and we learn."
Arkansas (14-1, 2-1) held on despite losing Ashley Daniels, of Coldwater, to an injury with 5 minutes, 9 seconds remaining in the game. The junior forward apparently bumped her head into teammate Sarah Watkins (game-high 21 points) in a scramble for a loose ball in the lane on Arkansas'' end of the floor. Medical personnel placed a neck brace on Daniels and then put her on a board and carted her off on a stretcher. She lost consciousness at Humphrey Coliseum but regained it en route to the hospital, according to a MSU spokesperson.
Arkansas coach Tom Collen said Daniels lost a filling Saturday and had a headache Sunday but still was able to play. He said the stop in action affected his team, which was leading 49-40 at the time, but he credited MSU for its tenacity down the stretch.
Collen knows what the Lady Bulldogs are experiencing. He said his team, which has only three seniors on its 17-player roster, finally has a group that includes six juniors who have been through the SEC battles. As a result, Arkansas started 12-0 for the second time in Collen''s four seasons at the school, and has two victories against ranked opponents (No. 12 Oklahoma, No. 10 Kentucky). He said MSU has some nice pieces to the puzzle, including junior college transfers Ashley Brown and Porsha Porter, players his team recruited, but that it needs time to get them to jell.
"They''re trying to find chemistry," Collen said. "They just need to play together. You think about it, by the end of the year and going into next year, then, all of a sudden, they''re going to be a real senior-dominated lineup. They''re going to come around and they''re going to beat some people. I think they''re a pretty solid team."
Unfortunately, Fanning-Otis knows MSU can''t afford any moral victories because there won''t be any easy games the rest of the season. MSU will play host to LSU at 7 p.m. Thursday and will travel Sunday to No. 10 Kentucky, which lost to Arkansas and Georgia on Thursday and Sunday, respectively.
Johnson said the Lady Bulldogs can''t afford lulls in intensity or a loss of focus. She said that''s what happened following an energetic start and a stretch in which MSU went 1 of 8 from the field with eight turnovers. Arkansas capitalized and used a 16-3 run to build a 16-7 lead with a little less than eight minutes to play in the first half. It led 30-17 at halftime.
"That''s one problem we have, taking off on defense when we''re not going real good offensively," Johnson said. "That is something we have to work on because that is a problem we have right now."
Johnson said playing with more effort for longer periods is crucial to the team''s success this season. She said the team can''t use youth as an excuse and needs to play with the mind-set it showed for most of the second half. MSU executed its half-court offense and shot 43.2 percent (after a 20-percent effort in the first half) and committed only three of its 18 turnovers in the final 20 minutes.
"We just have to do it for 40 minutes," Johnson said. "We can''t let tired be a factor. We get tired and it is like we go brain dead. That''s our problem."
Fanning-Otis said a tougher and more focused approach will help the Lady Bulldogs win the mental game, allow them to execute for longer stretches, and have a chance to win games regardless of the opponent.
"A mature team finds a way to keep energy," Fanning-Otis said. "They find a way to keep defending and rebounding the ball and pushing the ball and finding shots. A mature team will find that. They will keep the game 0-0 if that is the way it is going to be. You have to be mentally tough. You have to find ways to ballgames. If that is with your defense, so be it. Make a commitment to that and find a way to get it done."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.