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Lady Bulldogs searching for toughness

 

Adam Minichino

 

Pat Summitt knows what it means to be tough. 

 

Growing up, Summitt was bloodied, knocked down, battered and bruised playing basketball with her three older brothers. The lessons Summitt learned -- "You can''t be a sissy and play this game" -- steeled her resolve and have helped her become the all-time winningest coach in NCAA basketball history, men or women, in any division. 

 

If there is an authority on getting the most out of players and conditioning them to be tough, Summitt is it. With eight national titles, which is second only to UCLA men''s coach John Wooden (10), Summitt understands how to motivate players to reach their potential. 

 

This season, Summitt''s Lady Volunteers have flashed that toughness, are ranked No. 5 in the nation, and lead the Southeastern Conference at 19-2 and 7-0 in the league. 

 

Tennessee''s size, experience, tradition, depth, and toughness will present a difficult challenge at 6 tonight (CSS) when Mississippi State (10-8, 0-6) visits Knoxville, Tenn. 

 

The Lady Volunteers, who have won 10 in a row, have never lost (31-0) to the Lady Bulldogs, who have lost seven in a row. 

 

Even though their teams are on opposites tracks, Summitt said she understands what MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis is going through when she says the Lady Bulldogs need to get tougher. 

 

"I have always said you don''t get what you expect you get what you demand," Summitt said. 

 

Summitt didn''t get to call fouls when she played basketball with her brothers and other boys from the neighborhoods. She said she typically was the only girl in those games and that she didn''t expect anyone to go easy on her. She also didn''t want to be a "sissy" and let her brothers'' physical play force her away from the game she loved. 

 

These days, Summitt doesn''t go easy on her players. She said she and her assistant coaches set the bar high every day in practice and condition their players not to give in mentally or physically to fatigue. She said accountability is the key, and that players -- like Angie Bjorklund (who won''t play tonight due to a foot injury) and Shekinna Stricklin -- have to police their teammates and make sure everyone is focused. 

 

And while that approach has worked for Tennessee, it remains a work in progress at MSU. Fanning-Otis said a team that features five junior college transfers, four freshmen, and a senior playing organized basketball for the first time in four years continues to learn how to play together and how things work best. 

 

"Since the beginning of the season we as a staff have been through just about every approach with them," Fanning-Otis said. "We have tried to be very, very hard on them, and I have been in their faces a lot. The thing we have challenged them the most about is consistent effort, playing through a mistake, and not letting a missed shot carry over to defense." 

 

The Lady Bulldogs inconsistency in delivering that effort forced Fanning-Otis to evict the players from their locker room two to three weeks ago. She said she was close to letting the players back into the locker room -- and admits they are more focused and are listening better, but the effort in a recent practice didn''t meet her standards, so the team will continue to use a visitors'' locker room at Humphrey Coliseum. 

 

"I want a team that plays hard, doesn''t quit, punches from the beginning, and can be the best it can be," Fanning-Otis said. "If they can do that, hopefully they will get back in there." 

 

Accomplishing that objective will require toughness. Summitt knows Fanning-Otis isn''t going to change her "no-nonsense" approach. She credited Fanning-Otis for not compromising, which has helped her last for 16 seasons in Starkville. 

 

Fanning-Otis said she won''t lower her standards, but she admits she is trying to stay positive. She said she and her assistant coaches are stressing focus and hope the progress will continue so the Lady Bulldogs can reach the goal Fanning-Otis set at the beginning of the season: Be the most improved basketball team at the end of the year. 

 

"We will continue to try to tweak and make little adjustments and try to help the players understand things better," Fanning-Otis said. "We hope some of our newer players are going to come along to provide us with more depth that will help us play our best basketball down the stretch." 

 

MSU is averaging 57.7 points a game, which is last in the SEC. It also is tied (with Alabama) for last in the league in field goal percentage (37 percent). The Lady Bulldogs are fourth in the SEC in scoring defense (57.7) and fifth in field goal percentage defense (36.5 percent). 

 

Junior Diamber Johnson leads the team in scoring (11.3 points per game), followed by senior Mary Kathryn Govero (11.1 ppg.). 

 

Govero is 10 points shy of the 1,000-point mark for her career. 

 

Tennessee is beating its opponents on average by 25.1 points a game. Freshman Meighan Simmons leads the team in scoring (15.6 ppg.). 

 

 

 

 

Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.

 

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