January 21, 2011 10:54:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Teams typically can shake off one mistake.
A second will test a squad''s resolve, but it, too, can be erased with execution, focus, and togetherness.
The Mississippi State women''s basketball team is still trying to find a consistent way to deliver those three ingredients for 40 minutes.
As a result, MSU''s inability to make two key defensive stops and a scoreless stretch of more than seven minutes down the stretch proved too much to overcome in a 45-41 loss to Auburn University before a crowd of 815 at Humphrey Coliseum.
"It''s the best position we have been in to win a ballgame (in the Southeastern Conference)," MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said. "Hopefully we will be get more aggressive with our entire game and get a better understanding of each other and get a little bit more confidence in ourselves as we get to know each other better."
Morgan Toles'' layup with 7 minutes, 7 seconds remaining appeared innocent enough. But it triggered a game-changing 11-0 run that Auburn (12-7, 5-1 SEC) used to rally for its second road win in the league this season.
Alli Smalley compounded the frustration for MSU (8-9, 0-5) when she hit a 3-pointer from the right wing with 2:28 to play to kick the Tigers'' lead to 42-37.
Meanwhile, MSU was mired in a 0-for-13 shooting slump that included several quality shots. Ashley Brown''s layup with 7:36 remaining gave MSU a 37-34 lead, but inconsistency plagued the Lady Bulldogs at the wrong time. Not only did MSU have several good shots that it couldn''t convert, but it also appeared tentative against Auburn''s defense as it searched for someone who could hit a big shot.
"I think we had a chance of winning this game, but at the end we couldn''t hit any shots," junior forward Porsha Porter said. "It happens some games, but now we know we need to get into the jump and shoot more so we can put ourselves in position to win a close game."
Porter epitomized some aspects of MSU''s evening. The junior college transfer backed up her mandate to bring more energy to the court and took the ball to the basket for two key baskets in the second half. But Porter couldn''t finish another drive with less than five minutes remaining and MSU trailing 39-37. She also lost Smalley for a moment chasing her through screens on the 3-pointer from the right wing that was the big shot of the game.
Toles'' shot proved equally as important. The sophomore guard shook Darriel Gaynor to get to the rim for the spark the Tigers needed.
MSU junior guard Diamber Johnson (six points on 3-of-13 shooting, seven turnovers) said she thought the shots would start to fall, the team would make stops on defense, and it would win the game.
"Little stuff kept happening and every time we would do something bad they would come down and score," Johnson said. "They had an answer for every mistake we had."
Fanning-Otis reiterated that the Lady Bulldogs have to get tougher to be able to take the next step to close out games in could -- or should -- win.
"We can''t miss matchups, we can''t have easy buckets or uncontested shots or missed blockouts," Fanning-Otis said. "We have to play tougher. If we get knocked down we have to get up quicker. Now this team has to look each other in the eye and has to work harder in practice."
Auburn coach Nell Fortner acknowledged her team can play much better than it showed Thursday night. The Tigers'' 16 points at halftime (6 of 29 from the field, 20.7 percent) were a season-low for a first half.
Auburn rebounded to shoot 50 percent (11 of 22) in the second half. It also stepped up its defensive intensity to limit MSU, which shot 37 percent in the first half, to 26.5 percent (9 of 34) in the second half.
"I was pleased with how we came out in the second half and really played some good defense," Fortner said. "We always have been a team that has fed off our defense, so we needed for that to happen."
Fortner also said Smalley, the team''s second-leading scorer at 11.8 points per game, appeared to play tight. She regrouped to score all of her points in the second half, including the dagger that silenced the Lady Bulldogs.
"I thought the three Alli hit was the difference," Fortner said. "It gave us a little breathing room, just a little bit, but it was a big shot for her and everyone fed off it."
Smalley also had five rebounds, five assists, and four steals. Blanche Alverson added 11 points, and Jordan Greenleaf had 10 rebounds for the Tigers.
Catina Bett paced MSU with 15 points. The junior center also had eight rebounds, but she had 11 points in the first half and was 2 of 8 from the field in the second half, including three misses in the scoreless stretch. Her basket with 15.5 seconds to play ended the drought.
Brown matched a career-high with 15 rebounds for MSU, which committed 20 turnovers and had only seven assists. The Lady Bulldogs outrebounded the Tigers 46-35, including 20-11 on the offensive boards.
MSU will travel to Athens, Ga., on Saturday and will take on No. 24 Georgia at 2 p.m. Sunday (Fox Sports Net).
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.