February 6, 2009
STARKVILLE -- On a night in the Southeastern Conference when a coach and a player reached 1,000, the Mississippi State women''s basketball team was more than happy to finish No. 17.
Alexis Rack scored a team-high 14 points and MSU made 13 of 14 free throws down the stretch Thursday to beat No. 20 Vanderbilt 66-61 before a crowd of 672 at Humphrey Coliseum.
Armelie Lumanu (12 points), Robin Porter (11), and Donnisha Tate (nine points, team-high eight rebounds) added key contributions that should help the Lady Bulldogs (17-6, 4-4 SEC) bolster their resume for the NCAA tournament selection committee.
The Lady Bulldogs had to fight for the victory, though. After leading the whole game and losing it midway through the second half, the Lady Bulldogs counter-punched when needed to earn their first win this season (1-3) against a team ranked in the Associated Press Top 25.
"I am so proud of the team effort and their focus," MSU coach Sharon Fanning said. "I felt like we had a look that was a winning look."
The Lady Bulldogs executed when it mattered the most. After a turnover led to two free throws by Jennifer Risper that cut MSU''s lead to 58-56 with 1 minute, 27 seconds to play, Porter scored on a left-handed layup to kick the margin to 60-56 with 1:03 remaining.
Porter, Rack, and freshman point guard Diamber Johnson (four points, no turnovers in 23 minutes) combined to hit 6 of 6 free throws in the final 34 seconds to seal the deal.
"It was real big, especially coming off the loss to Georgia," said Rack, referring to a 69-57 loss Sunday in Athens, Ga. "It is good to finish a game."
Rack was 6 of 6 from the free-throw line to help the Lady Bulldogs go 18 of 22 from the stripe (81.8 percent) in the second half.
Her two free throws with 2:13 to play helped her become the 15th player in school history to reach 1,000 points for her career.
More importantly, all eight of the Lady Bulldogs who played double-digit minutes scored and contributed.
The biggest efforts might have come from Tate, a 6-foot senior forward, who had one of her best games in a season-high 28 minutes. In a span of 4:25 in the second half, she hit a turnaround jumper, scored on a layup off a pass from Lumanu, and was active on the offensive boards (game-high six) to earn and to make two free throws.
"We came out ready to practice a day ago, came out real tough in practice, and had out mind-set we were going to win this game and play tough," Tate said. "We talked about how the team was going to be aggressive and we knew what we were going against. We had to be physical, which showed in our rebounding and in our aggressive defense."
Tate also said the Lady Bulldogs communicated on defense. The togetherness MSU showed helped it force Vanderbilt (17-6, 6-2) into matching its season-high for turnovers (27).
"We haven''t done (communicated) in the last couple of games," Tate said. "We haven''t been talking to each other on the court. Now we are communicating also from the offensive standpoint, which plays onto the defensive standpoint. Communication was a big part of it, and wanting to help each other."
Six of those turnovers came in the opening part of the first half as MSU raced to leads to 6-0, 10-2, and 14-6.
Tate said the early spurt played a key role in the outcome.
Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb agreed and said her team''s early mistakes gave MSU confidence and helped it set the tempo.
"We didn''t execute our game plan," Balcomb said. "It was very frustrating on our end. They came out really pressuring, denying, and really forced us out of our timing. ... They dictated on defense, which we did not do on defense. We did not dictate. We got attacked. We played as poorly on both ends of the floor."
Still, Vanderbilt had its chances. Senior forward Christina Wirth (16 points, six rebounds, six assists) fed Lauren Lueders for a 3-pointer in the corner to give the Commodores their only lead, 42-41, with 9:44 remaining.
But Wirth also had five turnovers, several of which were unforced. The Lady Bulldogs had their hands in on just as many, though, thanks to their ability to play the passing lanes and their willingness to help each other on defense.
"We wanted to pressure the basketball and try to get hands in passing lanes," Fanning said. "We switched up defenses some to cut passing lanes. Helping each other, hands on the basketball, forcing people to the baseline where we have some help, taking some charges, getting the loose ball, little things like that are things you have to have, and I think we had a combination of all of those."
Fanning said the Lady Bulldogs, especially the players who are in their first seasons, continue to understand the importance of February. She said games might not be pretty at this time of the year, but that everyone has to buy into the game plan and execute.
"We have to execute better in the halfcourt because our timing was off a little bit in the first half," Fanning said. "There are the little things we''re going to have to continue to work on and some mental mistakes we made down the stretch we made down the stretch that can cost you.
"We got to the free-throw line. It became a time-and-score game and we got there and we made those shots to hit 82 percent from the free-throw line. That is huge."
n NOTES: Tennessee coach Pat Summitt joined Rack in hitting 1,000 on the same night. Summitt''s Lady Volunteers beat Georgia 73-43 to give the Hall of Fame coach her 1,000th career victory. ... Rack had a season-high seven turnovers. ... Junior guard/forward Tysheka Grimes earned her first start of the season. She had six points, seven rebounds, and four steals in 17 minutes. ... MSU sophomore guard/forward Mary Kathryn Govero was named Thursday to the ESPN the Magazine Women''s Basketball Academic All-District Second Team, as announced by the College Sports Information Directors of America. The Clinton native touts a 3.86 cumulative grade-point average as a physical education major with a teaching and coaching emphasis. ... The victory, Fanning''s 550th of her career, snapped MSU''s five-game losing in the series. ... Vanderbilt, which entered the game as the third-best scoring team in the league (72.7 points per game), slipped to 3-6 when it scores less than 70 points.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.