January 22, 2011 11:02:00 PM
STARKVILLE -- Nell Fortner knows what it''s like to reload.
Two seasons ago, the Auburn University women''s basketball team was at the top of the Southeastern Conference. Buoyed by the efforts of four seniors, including eventual SEC Player of the Year DeWanna Bonner, the Tigers went 12-2 in the league, advanced to the title game of the SEC tournament, and won 30 games before falling in the second round of NCAA tournament.
Last season, Auburn searched for an identity. The Tigers couldn''t maintain the momentum from a five-game winning streak in the pre-SEC schedule and then suffered through two four-game losing streaks in SEC play en route to a 15-16 finish.
Mississippi State and coach Sharon Fanning-Otis are going through the same growing pains Auburn suffered last season.
Four seniors and eight letterwinners played integral roles last season in helping MSU go 9-7 in the SEC before the team peaked in the NCAA tournament, winning two games, including an upset of Ohio State, to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time in the program''s history.
Just getting an opportunity to play beyond the SEC tournament this season will be a tall order for MSU.
With only two returning players with significant playing experience and a roster that features five junior college players and four freshmen, the Lady Bulldogs are still searching for their identity 17 games into the 2010-11 season.
"I totally understand that a team doesn''t know who they are for a long time," said Fortner, whose team defeated MSU 45-41 on Thursday in Starkville. "We didn''t have a good year last year. All of those players are back this year, and it has helped us to figure out how to get through some tough games."
MSU (8-9, 0-5) will try to figure out how all of its pieces fit best together at 2 p.m. today (Fox Sports Net) when it plays No. 24 Georgia (15-3, 5-0) in Athens, Ga.
The Lady Bulldogs gave their longest sustained performance in an SEC game Thursday, but 20 turnovers, key defensive lapses, and 31.1-percent shooting effort, which included an 0-for-13 run late in the second half, spelled doom for MSU.
Fortner, whose team is 12-7 and 5-1 and sits in third place in the SEC, said focus is a key to help a team find its identity. She said it is crucial to reduce the number of things players have on their minds so they can concentrate on a handful of items. That way, she said, a team can master concepts -- like getting the ball inside or taking better care of the basketball -- that will help it reverse its fortunes.
Fortner said simplifying things for players makes it easier for them to develop confidence in areas that will help the team succeed.
"Give them two or three things they can really grab hold of," Fortner said. "Everybody can really sink their teeth into that and understand it totally. You are our rock here in the paint defensively. I think things like help a team find itself."
Fanning-Otis has tried to remain positive through her team''s six-game losing streak, the program''s longest since it lost the final 13 games of the 2005-06 season en route to a 6-22 (1-13 in SEC) showing. She has encouraged, prodded, and challenged her team to grow tougher so it can withstand the rigors of play in the SEC. So far, she has seen flashes of the level of play MSU needs to be competitive.
"This has to show you you can win," Fanning-Otis said after the Auburn game. "We have to understand the value of each possession. We still have too many turnovers, and timely ones at that."
MSU''s defense has kept it in games. The Lady Bulldogs are allowing only 56.5 points a game, and are fourth in the league in field goal percentage defense (35.8 percent).
But MSU''s biggest problems have come on offense, where it is scoring only 57.7 ppg. and is shooting 37.3 percent.
Junior Diamber Johnson has struggled to find her rhythm as a leading scoring and as a point guard, and senior Mary Kathryn Govero is learning how to work herself free when facing increased defensive attention.
Junior Catina Bett, who only joined the team at the start of the second semester, is slowly finding her touch in the post, as is junior guard Porsha Porter, a junior college transfer, on the wing. Both players need to take on bigger roles because the Lady Bulldogs don''t have the experience on the perimeter to create shots like they did last season with seniors Alexis Rack, Armelie Lumanu, and Tysheka Grimes.
"The team has to have a team thing about it," Fanning-Otis said. "We can''t be passive and expect someone else to get it done and me get a rest this time down the floor."
Johnson and Porter said Thursday that MSU has to learn from the mistakes that cost it what could have been its first league win. Both players said the Lady Bulldogs aren''t far from developing that consistency, but objects can appear closer than they actually are when you''re looking in the SEC mirror.
Porter said it is just a matter of playing through fatigue and finishing plays and games.
"It is focus and bringing energy," Porter said. "When we have focus and energy, there is no team that can play with us."
Georgia is on a six-game winning streak and has won nine of its last 10. Jasmine James leads Georgia in scoring, averaging 12.3 points a game. Senior forward Porsha Phillips is second in scoring averaging 11.3 points a contest.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.