February 5, 2011 9:40:00 PM
STARKVILLE -- Sharon Fanning-Otis knows her team is improving.
But the Mississippi State women''s basketball team''s rate of improvement hasn''t been able to match the pace of the rest of the teams in the Southeastern Conference.
As a result, MSU (8-13, 0-9 SEC) remains the SEC''s only winless team in league play. MSU is one of four teams (Virginia Tech, Villanova, Seton Hall, and Oregon State) in a Big Six power conference not to have a victory in league play.
MSU will try to correct that fact at 2 p.m. today when it plays at Auburn University. The Lady Bulldogs lost to the Tigers 45-41 on Jan. 20 in Starkville.
Fanning-Otis said Thursday following a 66-61 loss to the University of Alabama that the SEC is "the most aggressive it has been from top to bottom" that she has seen in a long time. She said the Lady Bulldogs are the ones who will have to "step up" to the challenge and fight back when a team comes at it hard.
"It is going to be real important that everyone can step up and have a work ethic that is relentless," Fanning-Otis said. "Until we get to this point, we know how hard this league is going to play. That is something we will continue to fight for and to work on. ... I know we''re learning a lot of lessons and they''re very costly to us, but, hopefully, we''ll step up to the challenge and find a way to get this done."
The first game against Auburn, like many of MSU''s losses in SEC play, epitomized the team''s frustrations. Despite holding a 46-35 rebounding edge, including 20 on the offensive boards, MSU hurt itself by shooting 31.1 percent from the field and by committing 20 turnovers.
Overcoming scoring droughts has been the biggest hurdle. In the first meeting against Auburn, MSU led 37-34 in the second half before it went 0-for-13 from the field and without a point for 7 minutes, 21 seconds.
"It is always good to have the opportunity, but I feel like we have had opportunities game in and game, but opportunity is not fulfilling," MSU senior guard Mary Kathryn Govero said. "It is going to be fulfilling when you get the victory. We just have to do the small things through the whole game to give us the results we need."
Govero said the Lady Bulldogs have to keep things simple. MSU has shown it can compete when it does that. It shot 52 percent in the first half against Florida on Jan. 30 in Starkville, but the Gators shot 55.6 percent and led by three at halftime.
MSU''s effort against Tennessee on Jan. 27 in Knoxville, Tenn., was even more impressive. The Lady Bulldogs shot 46.9 percent in the first half and built a 37-35 halftime lead. The Lady Volunteers responded with an 18-0 run to start the second half.
Fanning-Otis has said numerous times this season her team must do a better job of responding to "punches." She has repeated the refrain the Lady Bulldogs need to play "tougher", and has shuffled rotations in an attempt to find the right mix.
Against Alabama, MSU went without a point for 6:20 in the first half, which allowed the Crimson Tide to seize the momentum. MSU rallied, only to see tentative play and aggressive play by Alabama prove to be too much.
Junior guard Porsha Porter scored a season-high 30 points and had nine rebounds in one of her best efforts of the season. Unfortunately, she also had seven turnovers, many of which came against Alabama''s full-court pressure defense.
"We just have to keep playing hard when everything is not going right for us," Porter said. "We have to keep pushing. ... I know I had a lot of turnovers, but I have to learn how to stop turning the ball over. We need to be more patient and we might get a win."
The losing streak is the longest since the team lost the final 13 games of the 2005-06 season. MSU finished 6-22 and 1-13 in the SEC that season. The losses came by an average of more than 17 points per game.
This season, the consolation is that the losses are only by an average of 12 ppg. But that offers little consolation to a team that sometimes seems to be its own worst enemy. On a night when it does one thing well, another pops up and stops it in its tracks.
"We go against boys in practice, and we feel like we have some personal vendetta against them and we''re always going hard," Johnson said. "Maybe we need to visualize the team we''re playing as the boys because we always seem to do the stuff we''re lacking in games, we tend to do that in practice."
MSU is last in the SEC in scoring (57.9 ppg.), field goal percentage (37 percent), and assist-to-turnover ratio.
Auburn (13-9, 6-3) is coming off a 69-38 loss at No. 17 Kentucky. The Wildcats outrebounded the Tigers 44-28 and forced them into 28 turnovers.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.