March 7, 2010 12:30:00 AM
DULUTH, Ga. -- The Mississippi State women''s basketball team took the first punch.
The Lady Bulldogs handled the second and third blows, and even dished out a few.
But when it came time to weather the barrage of round-house haymakers they knew were going to come in the second half, MSU didn''t have an answer.
Led by 18 second-half points by Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year A''dia Mathies and a 22-point effort by SEC Player of the Year Victoria Dunlap, second-seeded Kentucky rallied from a 14-point second-half deficit Saturday to beat third-seeded MSU 76-65 in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament at The Arena at Gwinnett Center.
With the victory, Kentucky (25-6) advances to the SEC Tournament final for the second time in school history, and the first since it won the title in 1982, to face top-seeded Tennessee, which beat Vanderbilt in the first game of the day, at 5:30 p.m. today (ESPN2). The win also helped the Wildcats match the single-season record set in 1980-81.
For MSU (19-12), the second half was a missed opportunity in which it committed 15 of its season-high 28 turnovers. The unforced and forced miscues negated a 12-of-22 shooting effort (54.5 percent) in the final 20 minutes.
"It''s a heartbreaker," said MSU senior Tysheka Grimes, who had a team-high 19 points. "It''s hard for me to talk about it. Hopefully, next game we can make it through the tournament and things like this and, hopefully, be better."
Armelie Lumanu (18 points, seven rebounds) had a stellar first half to help the Lady Bulldogs weather the Wildcats'' initial push. The senior guard had 10 points and five of her career-high tying six steals in the first half and set the tone with her energy. On at least two occasions, she hiked up her shorts and got down and dirty in the man-to-man defense to create havoc.
Unfortunately, Kentucky blanketed Lumanu with defensive pressure in the second half, forcing her into seven of her 10 turnovers. The Wildcats'' pressure continued throughout the second half and appeared to wear MSU down.
"You just can''t have excuses," MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said. "We did look mentally tired. When we made mistakes we looked more tired mentally. We had more energy when things were going our way."
Dunlap, a 6-foot-1 junior forward, provided the spark. With her team looking haggard, Dunlap scored eight points in a 10-0 run that helped Kentucky erase a 40-26 deficit and cut the lead to 40-36 with 15 minutes, 58 seconds to play.
MSU answered another punch or two, with Grimes hitting consecutive 3-pointers, to push the lead to 53-46, but Mathies made sure Kentucky responded. After Amber Smith drained a 3-pointer to answer Grimes, Mathies scored 12 of her team''s final 25 points to push the Wildcats home.
"At halftime, we talked that our aggressiveness was non-existent," Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said, "so somebody had to step up and start making plays. They were all plays we were capable of making. I just think our team, when Victoria can get in the press and get active, when A''dia can be aggressive and attack the basket on offense and get some buckets, it gives everyone energy."
Mathies almost wasn''t a factor. She took an inadvertent elbow to the face by Alexis Rack less than two minutes into the half and had to leave the game. She said after the game the elbow chipped a tooth in the back of her mouth and bloodied her, but that she would be ready for Tennessee today.
"I think it kind of gave our team energy," Mathies said of the elbow she took. "I think it actually gave us a little bit of momentum, knowing how the game was going to be, getting tougher, coming together as a team.
"When I got back into the game it was already high energy. I just fed off of them. I think it helped me to go out there and make plays and help my team out."
Kentucky responded without its leader and turned up the energy on its full-court pressure defense. When Mathies returned at the 17:03 mark, she was more than ready to jump in and add to the momentum. It wasn''t until Dunlap made 1 of 2 free throws with 9:40 left to give Kentucky a 54-53 lead, its first since 8-6. Two lead changes and a tie later, Kentucky''s pressure helped it pull away.
"We already know if we get down that''s not gonna do nothing but hurt us, so we just try to keep a lot of energy and enthusiasm," Mathies said. "We came back from a lot of points before. We know we''re capable of coming back."
On the other side, MSU was left to wonder what could have been. The Lady Bulldogs were in the tournament semifinals for only the third time in school history, and a victory would have sent them back to the final for the first time since 2000.
But MSU will have more than a week to regroup before it learns its fate March 15 on the NCAA tournament selection show.
"We had every opportunity for this to be a game that was going down to the wire or to maintain the lead we had," Fanning-Otis said. "I felt like some of the things we did to ourselves. But I felt like Kentucky''s pressure had a lot to do with some of those turnovers and us just not being focused on where the defensive players were coming from behind.
"Hopefully we grow from this and, hopefully, we have another opportunity in a couple of weeks to play some more basketball."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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