STARKVILLE — The final 8 minutes, 2 seconds were Victoria Dunlap”s time to shine.
With Mississippi State within one point and in position to steal the momentum back, Dunlap made sure she did her part — and then some — to push the University of Kentucky women”s basketball team to victory.
Dunlap had team highs of 19 points and 12 rebounds Sunday afternoon to lead Kentucky to a 69-59 victory before a crowd of 1,385 at Humphrey Coliseum.
A”dia Mathies and Carly Morrow scored 13 and 11 points respectively, to help Kentucky (18-3, 6-2 Southeastern Conference) earn its fifth consecutive SEC victory for the first time in program history.
Dunlap, a 6-foot-1 junior forward, strengthened her case for first-team All-SEC honors with her 19th career double-double to move into fourth place on the school”s all-time list. In the process, she became the 27th player in school history to eclipse 1,000 career points (1,003), notched two blocked shots to move into a tie for fourth (102 career) on the school”s all-time list, and jumped into 10th place on UK”s all-time rebounding list (695).
“She is one of the toughest players in the league,” MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said. “She is hard nosed. She knows how to get to the free-throw line and she is patient with moves. She is just tough. She is alert and plays every possession. She is a player who is one of our best in the league. The credit goes to her work ethic.”
Meanwhile, MSU senior guard Alexis Rack had her poorest shooting game (4 of 24, 2 of 10 from 3-point range) of the season. The Lady Bulldogs” leading scorer coming in (20.3 points per game) scored 11 points and had six assists and four steals in 36 minutes.
“I was just trying to continue playing. I thought eventually it will fall,” Rack said. “I always say, ”Keep shooting.” Usually they start falling, but they didn”t.”
Still, MSU (14-8, 5-4), which was coming off back-to-back victories against Vanderbilt and Georgia, had a chance to make it three in a row for the first time in the program”s history. A jump shot by Chanel Mokango (team-high 17 points, three blocked shots in 24 minutes) off a pass from Armelie Lumanu (11 points, seven rebounds, five assists) cut Kentucky”s lead to 52-51 with a little more than eight minutes to play. But the Lady Bulldogs went 2 of 17 from the field to close the game.
Dunlap did her best to be everywhere for Kentucky. She blocked a shot by Rima Kalonda and affected a missed jump shot by Rack immdiately following Mokango”s jump shot. In the final minute, she jumped a screen and roll and forced Mary Kathryn Govero to lose the ball out of bounds on a turnover.
On the other end, Dunlap, who had the word “Beast” and others written on tape wrapped around one of her wrists, was just as effective. She hit two free throws and earned an assist in a 3-pointer by Mathies down the stretch that helped Kentucky move into sole possession of second place in the league.
“I feel like I played OK for my teammates, but they told me I was (a beast), so I believe them,” Dunlap said.
Dunlap said she started to write words on tape and put them around her wrist last season and that she does it to stay focused during games. The move worked as she proved to be too active to contain on a day when Kentucky had more energy and used it to take MSU out of its rhythm.
“This definitely was a big opportunity for us to show we could do that because of Rack and her ability to shoot three and everybody else and their ranges,” Dunlap said. “Coach talked about us getting out and staying low (on screens) and being ready for them to pull up at any time for a three. That was a big part of the game.”
Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell praised his team for its solid all-around effort. The Wildcats, who were ranked No. 23 in the USA Today/ESPN Coaches poll, held MSU to 33.3 percent shooting and limited the Lady Bulldogs to 15 points off 18 turnovers.
“I think with Alexis you have to be fortunate on some days,” Mitchell said. “Some days she is really unstoppable. I thought we tried. I thought we were there with her and tried to make her put it down. She still got off 10 threes, but I didn”t think she got a lot of wide open threes.”
Mitchell also credited Dunlap for helping the team extend its winning streak to five games.
“She is a very tough player,” Mitchell said. “She has a lot of heart, has a great attitude. Talented players who also work real hard like that are real rare. She is a special player. She has really stepped up this week. She had a great night at LSU (in a victory Thursday) and an incredible afternoon today. I am real, real proud of her. I thought she really went to battle today.”
Fanning-Otis was disappointed with her team”s toughness. She said the Lady Bulldogs didn”t play with the focus needed and didn”t respond when Kentucky took the ball at them.
Those are familiar themes for MSU, which struggled in losses to Tennessee, Florida, and Ole Miss earlier this month, only to regain its balance in the past two games.
Kentucky knocked MSU from that spot Sunday.
“We didn”t have the alertness we did the past games that we have to have” Rack said. “Eight seniors, end of the season, we should have it.”
Said Fanning-Otis, “You watch Kentucky on film and they are a team that really battles. They guard you as hard as any team we have played this year. … You have to battle. You know every possession is so important. I shot selection, I think, at times, needed to be better. It was a very, very, very physical game, and it is one of those things you have to play above.”
n NOTES: Fanning-Otis said senior Tysheka Grimes (foot injury) practiced earlier in the week and that the coaching staff decided to wait until Thursday (against Alabama) to get back on the court. She said Grimes is going to have to be patient to work herself back into the rotation and that everyone is excited to get her back. Grimes hasn”t played in a SEC game this season. … Mitchell, who is from Louisville, graduated from MSU in 1995. In just his third season as head coach, he has won twice in Starkville. … The consecutive road victories are Kentucky”s first since the 2005-06 season.
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.