PITTSBURGH — The NCAA tournament brings out the best in everyone.
For the second consecutive game, Mississippi State senior center Chanel Mokango will have the opportunity to match up against one of the best post players in the nation. More than two days after defending Middle Tennessee State”s Alysha Clark, the nation”s leading scorer, Mokango likely will match up in the post against junior center Jantel Lavender when seventh-seeded MSU (20-12) takes on second-seeded Ohio State (31-4) at 6:11 tonight (ESPN2) in the second round of the NCAA tournament at the Petersen Events Center.
“It is going to be a big challenge because she is a pretty good player,” Mokango said. “The players in the SEC are not similar to her, so I am going to need more help from my teammates.”
Mokango”s defense against the 6-foot-4 Lavender, the three-time Big Ten Conference Player of the Year, will be just one aspect of a defensive effort MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said will need to be much improved from Sunday night. MSU”s 13-0 stand in the final 4 minutes, 39 seconds helped it rally for a 68-64 victory. Mokango showed the toughness and physicality needed to help limit Clark, who entered the game averaging 28.7 points per game, to only 17.
“Last night, Chanel (who is 6-5) was able to front a little bit better just because of size,” Fanning-Otis said. “Clark (who is 5-10) could catch well but wasn”t quite as tall. I guess we just have been blessed to play against two of the best in the country right now. You can”t let (Lavender) get you up the lane too high. We did not do a good job at all (against MTSU) of trying to deny the reversal the ball or penetration. Whoever has (Lavender) in that post position is going to have to work around her.”
While Clark excels at using her body to seal defenders and to exploit scoring opportunities with either hand, Lavender is an athletic post player with a fine touch and a mid-range game who is accustomed to the physical play in the Big Ten Conference.
Mokango will give up 20 to 30 pounds to Lavender, so she won”t be able to displace her from the block. Her objective will be to try to win the battle of position and to use her length and her ability to block shots (program-best 176 in two seasons) to affect Lavender.
“Coaches have told me I need to be down and don”t let her push me up the basket,” Mokango said. “I don”t really care who is big. That doesn”t matter to me. I just have to play the game.”
As a team, Mokango said the Lady Bulldogs will have to pressure the basketball to prevent easy entry passes to the post. She said the post players will have to control the defensive glass to erase second-shot opportunities and to give the Lady Bulldogs a chance to get out on and run.
Junior guard Mary Kathryn Govero said all of the Lady Bulldogs will play key roles in delivering a solid defensive effort.
“It is different because (Lavender) is a lot bigger,” Govero said. “It is a little bit of the same (as Clark) because I think she likes to use body contact to create her offense. She can score from outside, so we”re going to have to make her play over the top of us rather than around us.
“She is a great all-around player. It is going to be a challenge, but it is a challenge we”re willing to accept. It is not going to be one person, it is going to be the whole team that is going to have to guard for us to be successful.”
Grimes” status uncertain
Senior forward Tysheka Grimes might have unwittingly sparked MSU”s rally Sunday when she apparently sprained her left ankle late in the second half against MTSU.
Grimes went down in the lane and had to be helped off the floor after the Blue Raiders capitalized on the injury to hit a 3-pointer at the other end on a four-on-five situation.
The points were the last ones MTSU scored.
Without Grimes, MSU used a 13-0 run to rally from a nine-point deficit in the second half.
Fanning-Otis said Monday that Grimes was trying to get ready for practice and that she would go “a day at a time” with Grimes to see if she will be able to go tonight.
“We have played a lot of games in our league without Ty, so whoever (we have) we”ll have to deal with it,” Fanning-Otis said. “We will adjust and see what happens tomorrow.”
Grimes missed MSU”s first 10 games in the Southeastern Conference with plantar faciitis in her right foot. She has started 20 of 22 games this season and is third on the team in scoring (11.5 points per game) and rebounding (6.9).
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.