March 25, 2010 10:21:00 AM
That was the reaction many people had Nov. 22, 2009, when the Mississippi State women''s basketball team rolled past the University of Maryland 84-55 at Humphrey Coliseum.
MSU played that day with experienced ease and a ruthless efficiency on both ends of the floor that dared Maryland to try to do something to change the inevitable beatdown.
The victory helped the Lady Bulldogs improve to 4-0, and although it came against a young opponent, it served notice MSU was poised to realize the potential it showed in 2008-09 by advancing to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Nationally, the win pushed MSU to No. 19 in the Associated Press poll, a height it hadn''t seen since the days of all-time greats LaToya Thomas and Tan White.
The Lady Bulldogs struggled to reach that level the rest of the regular season. Losses against the University of Texas, Rutgers and Southern California later that week at the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands erased any of that momentum and left the Lady Bulldogs searching for their place.
The identity MSU carved the rest of the regular season was a two-step drama that featured its share of impressive victories (at Louisiana Tech, at Auburn, two against Vanderbilt, Georgia, and at South Carolina) and lackluster and disappointing defeats (at Xavier, Tennessee, twice to Florida, Ole Miss, Auburn, and LSU).
Still, the unpredictability of the Southeastern Conference worked in MSU''s favor. The Lady Bulldogs'' 9-7 slate was good enough for a four-way tie for third place that netted them a No. 3 seed thanks to tiebreakers for the SEC Tournament.
MSU validated that seed by beating sixth-seeded Georgia in the tournament quarterfinals before squandering a double-digit second-half lead against second-seeded Kentucky in the semifinals.
There was no doubt MSU would secure a bid to the NCAA tournament, but there were questions as to which team would show up at the Big Dance.
For much of its first-round game against Middle Tennessee State on Sunday, MSU showed the same inconsistency that plagued it in the regular season. The Lady Bulldogs failed to show the tenacity on defense that made opposing coaches cringe when they watched videotape. On offense, MSU looked disjointed and lacked the connected toughness of a team that recognized its strengths and made opponents try to stop them.
But something clicked in the final 4 minutes, 39 seconds. The Lady Bulldogs regained their swagger, tentatively at first, and rose to the occasion. Alexis Rack and Armelie Lumanu took care of the scoring, and Chanel Mokango helped handle the defensive chores on Alysha Clark, the nation''s leading scorer.
As satisfying as that come-form-behind 68-64 victory was, there was no telling if the momentum would carry over to Tuesday. Second-seeded Ohio State cruised to the Big Ten Conference regular-season title and won its second consecutive tournament title. The Buckeyes accomplished those feats with essentially the same team that rallied to beat MSU 64-58 in Columbus, Ohio, last year in the second round of the NCAA tournament. A cast that included three-time Big Ten Conference Player of the Year Jantel Lavender, sophomore point guard Samantha Prahalis, and a cadre of 3-point shooters figured to be a daunting challenge.
MSU looked every bit the executioner Tuesday, showing no mercy with an all-out defensive effort. It stepped into passing lanes, charged from behind to disrupt fast breaks, and forced turnovers with the ease of an Alexis Rack free throw.
Rack, the pulse of the team, surged on offense. Entering the game, she was shooting 27.8 percent (20 of 72) in her last six games and had hit only 9 of 33 3-pointers. But the senior guard gained her footing with a drive from the right wing for her first points against Ohio State. From there, she prowled the perimeter with a master''s precision, scoring a game-high 30 points. She dared someone to come out and guard her. When the Buckeyes tried, she drove around them and created easy opportunities for her teammates.
It was fun to watch. The Lady Bulldogs had nothing to lose and played with the confidence and abandon of a team with eight seniors that didn''t want its season to end.
MSU was so good it made OSU quit. That is the most impressive highlight in a victory that helped the program secure its first trip to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.
It was even more satisfying a national audience on ESPN2 had a chance to see the victory and celebrate with veteran coach Sharon Fanning-Otis, who also will be going to her first Sweet 16.
In 15 seasons at MSU, Fanning-Otis has built a solid and respected program. On Tuesday, Fanning-Otis and her coaches orchestrated one of the most impressive statement games in recent NCAA tournament history. It was a victory for coaches everywhere who push, prod, and cajole players to realize their potential and then are rewarded at the most pivotal junctures.
MSU picked the ideal moment to deliver a Wow-inducing reaction. Here''s hoping the ride doesn''t stop anytime soon.
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Commercial Dispatch. Reach him at: [email protected]
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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