March 23, 2009
Sharon Fanning has talked all season about responding to challenges.
The Mississippi State women''s basketball team discovered Saturday there was no better time than tied at 59 with less than two minutes remaining in its first NCAA tournament game in six years to punch back.
The Lady Bulldogs delivered a knockout blow many have been waiting for all season.
Chanel Mokango hit a turnaround jump shot off the glass to give the Lady Bulldogs the lead for good, and Alexis Rack and Armelie Lumanu combined to hit 10 of 10 free throws to lift No. 11 seed MSU a 71-63 victory against No. 6 seed Texas.
The victory helped MSU improve to 23-9 and sets up a date against No. 3 seed Ohio State (28-5), the Big Ten champion, at 6:07 tonight at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
Freshman point guard Samantha Prahalis scored a career-high 23 points Saturday in Ohio State''s 77-63 victory against Sacred Heart.
Another victory tonight would give the Lady Bulldogs their first trip to the Sweet 16. It also would mark the highest seeded team MSU has ever defeated in the NCAA tournament.
Fanning isn''t thinking that far ahead. She and her assistant coaches are too busy trying to come up with a way to stop Jantel Lavender, a 6-foot-4 sophomore center, who leads the team in scoring (21 points per game) and rebounding (10.9 per game).
Senior forward Star Allen (5-11) is second on the team in scoring and rebounding (10.8, 7.7).
But Fanning believes in her team. She has alternated between good cop and bad season in an attempt to fin what best motivates her players.
Through it all, the maturation is unmistakable.
"I don''t think we played our best basketball game (against Texas), but we did take it the next step," Fanning said. "When the game is on the line you have to stay focused and really work hard to do those little things. You also have to take care of the ball and rebound and go to the free-throw line. We had an opportunity to do that and we did it."
MSU''s focus and intensity has come and gone this season. But the Lady Bulldogs remained sharp Saturday despite foul trouble to Rack and Lumanu, who both played much of the second half with four fouls.
Rack, as has been the case many times this season, led the team with 20 points. Lumanu added 11 points and 10 rebounds.
Mokango added 15 points and five rebounds and was named the Player of the Game by ESPN2.
The Lady Bulldogs received other contributions that were just as valuable. Tysheka Grimes had eight points and 10 rebounds, Mary Kathryn Govero, who analyst Stephen Bardo called a "shotmaker," added 11 points, and Donnisha Tate had four points and four rebounds.
None of Tate''s efforts were bigger than an offensive rebound putback off Govero miss that gave the Lady Bulldog a 59-55 lead.
Tate willed herself to get the rebound and then fought through traffic with a purpose to convert the layup.
Fittingly, Fanning said, the Lady Bulldogs earned the victory because of the sum of their parts.
"I thought Donnisha Tate hit a couple of key buckets," Fanning said. "MKat (Govero) got inside a fairly quick defender and was able to o one or two quick things we hadn''t seen her do. Diamber (Johnson, who was 0-for-4 from the field), all but one of her shots were good shots. Robin Porter didn''t score much but she took a crucial charge. I think everybody stepped up and it was such a team effort. We defended hard and that helped us get a lead and we were able to keep them under 40 percent shooting for the game."
Fanning said MSU has faced a lot of scenarios that have prepared her team for the NCAA tournament. The Lady Bulldogs cam together on their second road trip of the season, beating Southern Miss, Utah Valley and Utah. They then beat Marshall before losing at nationally ranked Maryland.
Other tests have included a comeback victory against Ole Miss in Starkville, a close loss to Tennessee at home, a sweep of LSU, an upset of Vanderbilt, and a close loss to SEC regular-season champion Auburn at home.
In each of the losses, MSU missed a key ingredient that could have made the difference. Whether it was a lack of focus or concentration or effort, the Lady Bulldogs finally showed they could put a 40-minute effort together in a critical game.
Fanning will say the game was far from a masterpiece, while Texas coach Gail Goestenkors will lament the fact that starting point guard Carla Cortijo played only four minutes after recently breaking a finger.
Cortijo''s absence contributed to Texas committing 20 turnovers. But with two minutes remaining the game was there for the taking, and MSU took it.
"It is a great victory for us, but it is just one step with a lot of steps to go," Fanning said. "I want us to continue to improve and to be the best basketball team we can be and not be satisfied and be finished with one game. We have to play hard, and I think we did that together. We have to ply hard for 40 minutes, and we will have to do that Monday night."
Adam Minichino is sports editor of The Commercial Dispatch. He can be reached at [email protected]
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.