STARKVILLE — The Mississippi State women”s basketball team can be thankful it is a member of the Southeastern Conference.
But the parity in the league that its coaches have praised so much this season just might prove to the undoing of the Lady Bulldogs.
At 6 tonight, MSU will try to undo the damage it suffered Sunday in a disappointing home loss to Auburn when it plays at Alabama at Coleman Coliseum.
The Lady Bulldogs (17-10, 8-6 SEC) are a half-game behind third-place Vanderbilt, which defeated Florida on Wednesday night, with two games remaining in the regular season.
A top-four finish would secure the Lady Bulldogs a first-round bye in the SEC Tournament on March 4-7 in Duluth, Ga.
With a road game Sunday at LSU remaining, MSU can”t afford any more slip-ups if it wants to remain in the top third of the league. Two victories would help MSU secure third place, match the program”s highest finish in the league (2002-03), and help it record double-digit victories in the SEC for only the second time.
A different finish by the Lady Bulldogs could throw the standings into chaos.
MSU beat Vanderbilt twice and Georgia (7-7) once, so it holds the tiebreaker on those teams. But LSU (7-7), Florida (7-8) and South Carolina and the University of Mississippi (6-8) are in a logjam in the middle of the pack and ready to leapfrog a team that stumbles.
The final SEC standings are significant because in the past 10 seasons only five teams with a .500 record or better — Kentucky (2007-08), Vanderbilt (2002-03), Arkansas and Alabama (2001-02), and Florida (1999-00) — have had a team finish behind them in the regular season and go on to make the NCAA tournament.
In 2001-02, Arkansas and Alabama were tied for seventh in the league, but Georgia (6-8) was ninth and received an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
Unless there is a major upset in the SEC tournament, the SEC doesn”t figure to get eight or nine teams into the field of 64 teams this season. But NCAA tournament projections on CollegeRPI.com and on ESPN.com have MSU in the field as a No. 7 seed, thanks in part to their present standing in a league without a dominant team. Losses to Alabama and/or to LSU could affect MSU”s seeding, which would jeopardize their chances of earning a second consecutive bid to the NCAA tournament.
Efforts like the one MSU delivered Sunday aren”t going to get the job done. The 11th-place Tigers held the Lady Bulldogs to a season-low point total and shooting percentage (28 percent) in a 50-36 victory. The defeat was even more troubling because MSU had a week off following an impressive 73-54 victory against Ole Miss, it welcomed senior guard Alexis Rack (foot strain) back to the lineup, and it figured to play with emotion on Senior Day.
None of that materialized, though, as MSU played one of its poorest games of the season.
MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis watched a videotape of the loss shortly after seeing it in person and said a lack of effort from her team stood out. She said the Lady Bulldogs need to refocus and to play with a better mind-set the rest of the season.
“Maybe they had a mind-set that said, ”Hey, we beat them there (73-58 on Jan. 3 in Auburn, Ala.) and played well in the second half and thought they were going to get it going,” but they punched us and we didn”t punch back,” Fanning-Otis said. “We didn”t play very hard.”
MSU will have to avoid thinking the same thoughts about Alabama. The Lady Bulldogs handled the Crimson Tide 77-44 on Feb. 4 in Starkville. But Alabama gave SEC leader Tennessee all it could handle Feb. 18 before falling 74-67 in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Tennessee defeated MSU 75-48 on Jan. 10.
Fanning-Otis said the Lady Bulldogs can”t panic and play tightly when things get tough. She again stressed “connected toughness” as a key to her team”s fortunes.
“We can”t do anything about the Auburn game,” Fanning-Otis said. “The only thing we can control is our own destiny. That game did not help us, but we still have an opportunity to finish third in the league and what are we going to do with it?”
The only highlight from the Auburn game was senior Tysheka Grimes (eight points, season-high 13 rebounds) became the 17th Lady Bulldog to score 1,000 points during her career. She now has 1,003 points.
Unfortunately, Rack didn”t have as successful an afternoon. She shot just 1 of 7 from the field and finished with three points, which snapped her double-figure scoring streak at 39 games. She enters tonight”s game with 1,658 career points, 19 points shy of becoming the program”s No. 3 all-time leading scorer.
Alabama (11-16, 3-11) is coming off its first SEC road victory Sunday at Arkansas. Junior forward Tierney Jenkins leads the Crimson Tide in scoring (11.8 points per game), while sophomore guard Ericka Russell averages 11.0 ppg.
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.