February 16, 2009
STARKVILLE -- The Mississippi State women''s basketball team discovered Sunday afternoon it takes more than a stingy player-to-player defense and an elbow to the head to keep Auburn''s DeWanna Bonner down.
Staggered by an inadvertent elbow to the head with less than 4 minutes to play in a tie game, Bonner returned just in time to help No. 5 Auburn avoid an upset.
Bonner, the preseason Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, scored a game-high 25 points Sunday to propel Auburn past Mississippi State 63-58 before a crowd of 2,478 at Humphrey Coliseum.
"I think she is the best player in college basketball this year," Auburn coach Nell Fortner said. "She is 6-4 and has guard skills, can play anywhere on the floor, and can defend any position on the floor."
Bonner was 7 of 18 from the floor and 11 of 12 from the free-throw line. She also grabbed a team-high 10 rebounds and had six turnovers in 39 minutes to lead Auburn (25-1, 10-1 SEC) to the win.
Whitney Boddie scored 18 points and Sherell Hobbs scored 13 for Auburn, which is enjoying its highest ranking since Jan. 3, 2000.
Mississippi State (19-7, 6-5) missed an opportunity to earn its first victory against a top-10 team since a 79-75 victory at No. 9 Florida on Nov. 18, 2001. The Lady Bulldogs are 0-20 against Top 10 teams since that victory.
Bonner had a lot to do with the outcome.
She crumbled to the floor with 3 minutes, 12 seconds remaining after grabbing a rebound and then getting hit in the head as she tried to maneuver between two defenders.
Bonner writhed in pain on the floor and had to be helped off the court, but she returned with 2:04 to play and the game tied at 55.
After MSU missed two chances to take the lead, Bonner capitalized on a turnover and raced to the other end for a layup that made it 57-55 with 59.3 seconds left.
Bonner made two free throws with 22.9 seconds to go to increase Auburn''s lead to 59-55.
Alexis Rack (team-high 15 points) converted a three-point play with 18.1 seconds remaining to slice the deficit to 59-58, but Boddie and Hobbs combined to make 4 of 4 free throws in the final 17.4 seconds.
Rack missed a 3-pointer with less than 10 seconds to go that could have tied the game.
Mississippi State coach Sharon Fanning has watched Bonner mature as a basketball player since she was a point guard in the ninth grade. She said Bonner is special because she can affect a game in so many ways.
"What makes her really good is she is such an inside-outside kid," Fanning said. "She is so long, so defensively she challenges you. She rebounds. She has great touch and hands on the basketball."
Bonner said adrenaline helped her overcome the blow to the head. Her ability to go right or to go left and a deft ability to use shot fakes allowed her to get free from MSU''s player-to-player defense to create openings for herself.
She said her ability to get open wasn''t as easy as it looked.
"That was the best man defense I have seen played this season," said Bonner, who recorded the 38th double-double of her career. "They were physical and they got up in you, but we just came out and tried to attack.
"Once you got by one, there was always somebody to help and slapping and trying to get the ball. Everybody did a great job of attacking it."
Auburn attacked the defense by spreading it out in the half-court set and going one-on-one. The Lady Tigers made only 1 of 3 3-pointers but they were 20 of 28 from the free-throw line.
Fortner also credited MSU''s defense, saying the Lady Bulldogs might be "the best defensive team we have played all year."
Mississippi State forced 17 turnovers, held a 39-33 rebounding advantage, and held Auburn to 33.3 percent shooting in the second half (42.9 for the game).
"That was a tremendous, aggressive, physical, just a good defense," Fortner said. "It took us out of a lot of things we like to do offensively, and we had to play a lot of one-on-one basketball. It is a good thing we have some really good one-on-one basketball players. We hit some big shots when we needed them, we hit some free throws when we needed them, and we feel really good to get out of here with a win against a very good team."
Mississippi State had its chances to hit big shots to pull the upset. But missed shots in the lane and unforced turnovers (20) doomed their cause.
Rack, Mississippi State''s leading scorer entering the game, also was 6 of 23 from the field, including 2 of 12 from 3-point range.
Robin Porter (13 points, eight rebounds) was the only other MSU player in double figures.
Mississippi State''s Chanel Mokango, the team''s third-leading scorer, had only six points in 25 minutes due to foul trouble.
Fanning said she was so proud of how her team rallied from as many as six points down to take the lead midway through the second half.
The Lady Bulldogs took the lead again on a layup by Porter with 5:37 remaining before the game see-sawed back and forth the rest of the way.
"There was a look in our eyes and it was one that was winning," Fanning said. "The players have to build on that. They have to understand what are the little things that you did to force enough turnovers. ... I thought the finish of several plays where we had transition wasn''t good. Those are the little places we have to tighten up on. We have to expect right there to put it away. Instead of it being a one- or two-point lead, to get it to a three-, four-, five-, six-point lead because we were rebounding, we were getting stops, and we were forcing turnovers."
Fanning said she isn''t into "moral victories," especially this late in the season. Neither are Rack nor Porter who said the loss hasn''t changed their opinion about what the Lady Bulldogs can accomplish this season.
"We still are confident," Rack said. "We missed a few boxouts, a few layups, and a few rebounds that could have changed the game. We could have easily won the game."
Said Porter, "I don''t want anything but a win. We just have to step up and keep this intensity and go into practice next week."
Mississippi State will take today off and return to work Tuesday that will help prepare it to face Tennessee on Sunday in Knoxville, Tenn. The Lady Bulldogs have never defeated the Lady Volunteers.
A signature victory would be nice to help solidify a bid to the NCAA tournament, but Fanning is focused on making sure her team continues to improve every day.
"This is a basketball team that will continue to improve if we have the right mind-set through our very last game, which should be, and, hopefully, will be deep into the NCAA tournament," Fanning said. "That is what our expectations are."
n NOTES: Mississippi State junior guar Armelie Lumanu had a team-high 10 rebounds, but he also had a team-best six turnovers. ... Mary Kathryn Govero had eight points on 3-of--3 shooting in 25 minutes off the bench. ... Senior forward Donnisha Tate missed her second consecutive game serving a suspension for violating team rules. She was on the bench but didn''t dress out. ... MSU wore pink jerseys on the third-annual "Pink Zone" game in support of breast cancer research. Mokango (25), Tysheka Grimes (22), Lumanu (23), and Rima Kalonda (12) wore different numbered jerseys.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.