PITTSBURGH — Connected toughness has never been sweeter.
The seventh-seeded Mississippi State women”s basketball team delivered a 40-minute dose of the catch-phrase that has come to be the key to its success on Tuesday night to earn a historic victory.
Alexis Rack scored 30 points to lead four players in double figures and help MSU secure its first trip to the Sweet 16 with an 87-67 victory against second-seeded Ohio State in a second-round NCAA tournament game at the Petersen Events Center.
Chanel Mokango (19 points), Armelie Lumanu (17 points, six rebounds, five assists, six steals), and Mary Kathryn Govero (15 points, five steals) also scored in double figures in a game that was jammed with standout performances from Lady Bulldogs.
Diamber Johnson had six assists (one turnover) in 30 minutes, Bethany Washington had four points in nine minutes for an injured Tysheka Grimes, and Rima Kalonda played 15 minutes of solid defense in the post to help MSU contain three-time Big Ten Conference Player of the Year Jantel Lavender (17 points, eight rebounds).
“It is a very special team win,” MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said. “We stayed connected and showed some toughness. If you would have told me they would have started 7-for-7 on 3s and hit the offensive boards like they did and hit 46 percent from the field, 67 percent on threes, and 78 percent from the free-throw line and we would have won by 20 I would have thought maybe you were crazy.”
MSU (21-12) turned the momentum with an offense that shot better than 50 percent in both halves (55.7 percent for the game) for only the third time this season. It also used a sterling defensive effort in which it forced Ohio State (31-5) into 24 turnovers, its second most in a game this season, and converted those mistakes into a 37-9 edge in points off turnovers.
The win helped MSU erase the memory of a 64-58 loss to Ohio State last season in the second round of the NCAA tournament. It also pushes the Lady Bulldogs into a Sweet 16 matchup against third-seeded Florida State (28-5) at 1:32 p.m. Sunday (ESPN2) in Dayton, Ohio. The winner of that game will play the winner of the game between top-seeded Connecticut and fourth-seeded Iowa State on Tuesday.
Rack fueled the upset with a trademark game. Already with standout performances this season in victories against Maryland (career-high 43 points), Louisiana Tech (32), Vanderbilt (31), and Georgia (34), the senior guard was 10 of 18 from the field (6 of 12 from 3-point range) and had six assists and two steals in 35 minutes.
“Coming into this game I think we were more hungry than they were,” Rack said. “We knew it was a game of runs, and they went on their run early, and sooner or later we were going to go on ours, so we went and never looked back.”
Ohio State, the nation”s leading 3-point shooting team at 39.5 percent, hit its first seven 3-pointers and twice led by as many as eight points in the first half. But with Mokango, who is 6-foot-5, fronting the 6-4 Lavender and the guards providing plenty of help on the weak side, MSU was able to weather the storm on defense.
On the other end, MSU went 8 of 9 from the field to close the half on a 20-2 run that helped it take a 46-34 halftime lead. The run epitomized the connected toughness Fanning-Otis has spoken of so many times and that has sparked the Lady Bulldogs at times this season. Govero hit two 3-pointers, Washington, one of eight seniors on the team, hit a trey, Lumanu had a steal and a layup, Rack hit a 3-pointer, Mokango hit two turnaround jump shots over Lavender, and Lumanu scored on a layup off a drive-and-dish by Rack.
“We weren”t going to give up, no matter what the score was or how we were playing,” Rack said. “We knew sooner or later we were going to get on the same page and turn it up.”
Ohio State cut the lead below 10 points twice in the second half and never found an answer for MSU”s harassing defense. The Lady Bulldogs had 14 steals, their most since a 73-58 victory against Auburn on Jan. 3. A strong second-half shooting effort carried MSU to that impressive road victory, but it was nowhere near as important as the win the Lady Bulldogs notched Tuesday night.
“We just stressed the importance of winning all of the hustle plays and getting all of the little things throughout the game from pulling us apart,” Govero said. “Once we got a lead, we didn”t want to let down. Too many times this season we have got up and we have had a little lull in the game and we let the other team back in. Tonight, we just stressed the importance of 40 minutes and finishing the game. We knew they would make a run in the second half and we would have to weather that run and pull together and finish the game strong.”
One play by Govero in the second half reflected the energy and intensity MSU delivered. A turnover by MSU in a half-court set allowed Ohio State a fast-break advantage. But Govero sprinted back to knock the ball from the Ohio State player from behind. She then saved it from going out of bounds by tapping it to Rack.
Mokango scored on a layup off an assist from Johnson on the ensuing possession to kick MSU”s lead back to 60-47 with just over 13 minutes to play.
On defense, Rack and the MSU guards were right on time nearly all of the time with their help defense on Lavender, who earlier in the day was named one of 12 finalists for the Wade Trophy, given annually to the nation”s best women”s basketball player.
Rack had two steals and knocked the ball away from Lavender on another possession coming from the weak side.
“They were trying to deny me the ball and they were fronting me and they had a guard sitting right behind me,” Lavender said. “If they threw the lob, (the guard) was in the rhythm of my turn, so it was difficult to get any shots off. I think they did a great job. I think all around we just got outworked.”
Ohio State coach Jim Foster agreed. He credited Rack for having a “great game” and said his team struggled to cope with MSU”s athleticism, which forced his team into uncharacteristic mistakes. The result was the Lady Buckeyes” worst loss in the NCAA tournament since a 97-65 loss to Tennessee in the second round on March 18, 1996.
“They were very, very quick off the dribble and when (sophomore point guard) Sammy (Prahalis) started to struggle that was a problem between the ears for us because we”re not used to seeing that,” Foster said. “Their ability to score off the dribble, their quickness off the dribble, was a problem. When Sammy started to struggle I think we got tentative.”
Prahalis had 14 points, five rebounds, and six assists but committed 10 turnovers and was whistled for a technical foul with a little more than 4 minutes remaining that fouled her out.
MSU”s connected toughness played a role in Ohio State”s frustration. It lasted to the end, as Mokango hit a jump shot off a pass from Rack with one second on the shot clock with 1 minute, 19 seconds left to play. Lumanu also collected an offensive rebound for a putback with 37.5 seconds remaining as Ohio State”s players stood and watched.
Johnson delivered the exclamation point as the final seconds elapsed, slamming the ball down in the middle of the Pitt logo at center court.
It was a fitting statement on a night when MSU delivered an all-time best effort that made history.
“It started this last week as we practiced and it built up,” Fanning-Otis said. “We challenged them that we had not been the best team we can possibly be. I think today we took that next step, and it was something that was collective. It was something that they were connected, and I am very, very proud of all of them. But we still have to get better.”
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.