January 31, 2010 12:16:00 AM
STARKVILLE --The fleeting nature of momentum makes Southeastern Conference women''s basketball exciting.
Mississippi State''s game against Kentucky at 2 p.m. today at Humphrey Coliseum is an ideal example.
MSU (14-7, 5-3 SEC) and Kentucky (17-3, 5-2) would love a few days or an overmatched opponent as their next scheduled game so they could savor the victories they earned Thursday against ranked opponents (No. 9 Georgia, No. 18 LSU).
But the mettle of both teams will be tested less than 72 hours after those results in a game that figures to have important implications in the SEC race.
Thats why MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis stressed the past two days to her players that focus will be a key.
"Our goal is to fight the feeling of accomplishment," Fanning-Otis said. "You have to have a carryover in confidence, but you can''t become complacent. We want to expect to play the best we can and improve."
Kentucky, which is also receiving votes (No. 27) in this week''s Associated Press Top 25 and is No. 23 in the USA Today/ESPN Coaches poll, comes in off a 71-62 victory at LSU. The victory was the first for Kentucky in Baton Rouge, La., since 1995. It also snapped a 16-game losing streak to LSU and extended Kentucky''s win streak to a school record tying four (its longest since the 2005-06 season).
Junior forward Victoria Dunlap leads Kentucky in scoring (17.5 points) and rebounds (8.7). Freshman guard A''dia Mathies (11.6 ppg.) and junior guard Amber Smith (10.6) also score in double figures, while senior guard Amani Franklin is second on the team in rebounding (7.0).
"They play so intense and are so aggressive," Fanning-Otis said. "They have some great rotations from the bench, they have 3-point shooters, they have guards who want to get to the rim. They have some great, great, great experence. We have to do what we do better."
Kentucky has 10 players who average 10.8 minutes or more. It is tied with Ole Miss for the SEC lead in scoring (70 ppg.), and leads the league in steals (10.9) and turnover margin (+7).
MSU is fourth in scoring (67.2 ppg.), sixth in steals (7.5), and third in turnover margin (+2.13). The Lady Bulldogs are coming off their fourth victory against a ranked opponent this season. That is the most in a season since 2002-03 when they won five.
More importantly, the winner of today''s game will solidify a place at the top of the SEC standings. Kentucky is tied with Ole Miss for second, while MSU is tied for fourth with Georgia.
Florida (4-3) and Vanderbilt, South Carolina, and LSU (all with four league losses) are right behind them.
On Thursday, senior guard Alexis Rack had a game-high 34 points to help MSU earn its second victory against a ranked opponent in as many games. Rack hit 9 of 17 shots from the field, including 7 of 10 from 3-point range, to reach double figures for the 35th game in a row. She leads the team in scoring (20.3 ppg) and is second nationally in 3-pointers made per game (3.9).
MSU leads the league in 3-pointers made per game.
The Lady Bulldogs'' shooting proficiency from distance is just one reason Georgia coach Andy Landers is convinced MSU is one of the SEC''s best teams.
"I thought before the season started that they were one of the four best teams in the league, and I still do," Landers said Thursday after the game. "They''re athletic, they can score points, they defend you well, they have size, and they''re seniors."
Fanning-Otis said those traits came through Thursday because her players are "understanding how we''re going to get better as a team." The epiphany was a welcome sight after sluggish efforts at home in losses to Tennessee and Florida and in a road loss to Ole Miss. Those losses sapped the momentum from a team that won its first two SEC games in impressive fashion.
Now, MSU hopes to build on a modest two-game winning streak and to take another step toward improving its NCAA tournament resume. MSU has a Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) of 51 and a Strength of Schedule (SOS) rating of 45 in Collegerpi.com''s tabulations through Friday.
Kentucky has a RPI of 33 and a SOS of 98 in the same rankings.
"There is more to go," Rack said Thursday. "We have started to play more together as a team, and we''re just going to keep getting better. As long as we keep practicing hard, there is no limit."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.