BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Traditional approaches don”t apply this season to the Mississippi State women”s basketball team.
MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis expected a lot of change after the Lady Bulldogs lost four of five starters and eight letterwinners from their most successful season in program history.
With a mix of five junior college players and four freshmen, MSU won”t resemble last season”s team, which is fine for Fanning-Otis and guard Mary Kathryn Govero, the team”s only senior.
“We”re going to have to be a team that draws on the strengths of all of its players,” Govero said. “We”re going to be a hard team to play because we don”t have traditional sizes or traditional positions. I am seeing a lot of the versatility from our team in practice.”
MSU was picked to finish tied for 11th earlier this week by members of the media who voted in the Southeastern Conference preseason poll. That pick speaks to how much the Lady Bulldogs lost and to the uncertainty of how Fanning-Otis and her coaches will assemble the new pieces.
But Fanning-Otis and Govero said the Lady Bulldogs have plenty of potential and versatility, and that the key will be drawing those talents out of everyone on a consistent basis and molding them into a cohesive unit.
“I think there will be different combinations,” Fanning-Otis said. “There will be some size. Will it be together? I don”t know. Will there be five smaller ones? I think there is balance and some depth, and I think every day they”re going to get better. That is an expectation, and that is something we have to do for this team to win basketball games.”
Last season, MSU (21-13) finished third in the SEC (9-7) in a season in which two games separated the teams that finished third through ninth in the final SEC regular-season standings. The Lady Bulldogs reached the semifinals of the SEC tournament, received an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, and survived their first-round game against Middle Tennessee State to upset Ohio State in the second round to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time in program history. A three-point loss to Florida State ended the season.
This season, MSU is moving on without All-SEC performers Alexis Rack, Armelie Lumanu, and Chanel Mokango and five other contributors who played key roles. The Lady Bulldogs could be more versatile. They also could be a deeper team. Those points will be goals the team will work on all season as it tries to advance to the NCAA tournament for the third season in a row for the first time.
“Everybody has the mind-set and the mentality of being a winner,” Govero said. “They”re eager to learn, and there is a lot to learn, but they”re eager every day.”
Govero, who is continuing her student teaching at Armstrong Middle School, has seen a taste of what elements this team could have. She said junior guard Porsha Porter, from Jefferson (Mo.) College, is a “very intense player and is a quick defensive player.” She said freshman guard Katia May is short in size (5-foot-2) but “has a big heart” and is “kind of fearless” like Rack in the sense she is “not afraid to take the ball in.”
In the post, Govero said 5-11 junior forward Eylseia Brown, from Jefferson (Mo.) College, may be undersized in the post but she has the potential to be a contributor.
While the other newcomers develop their identities, Govero and junior guard Diamber Johnson, the other returning player with the most experience, will be counted on to provide stability. Govero, who averaged 11.2 points per game, and Johnson, who averaged 4.1, also will be expected to raise their production levels.
But all of the uncertainty doesn”t mean Govero, Johnson, or any of the other returners will have to do too much.
“I agree with coach Fanning-Otis that it is going be a collective effort and from one game to the next we might have a different high scorer or a rebounder,” Govero said. “Everybody has a lot of confidence right now in practice because there are no positions (set). It is not like there are five starters and they feel like they are behind somebody. Everybody is competing for a position and playing time and the way they can help the team.”
Govero said that competition could result in a different lineup from week to week, or game to game. She said the team remains a work in progress, and it will stay that way through its season opener against South Carolina Upstate at 4 p.m. Nov. 12 (as part of a doubleheader with the MSU men), its first true test of the season against Louisiana Tech at 7 p.m. Dec. 1 in Starkville, road games later that month at Southern Miss (Dec. 15) and at Xavier (Dec. 17), and when the team kicks off its SEC play at 7 p.m. Jan. 6 at Vanderbilt.
Fanning-Otis hopes the players will help make her decisions about lineups easier. Ideally, she said players demand playing time or starting positions because of their work ethic and their expertise. She said the learning curve the newcomers will have to navigate will keep things fluid and will allow players to move into different roles. She said all of the players have been competing since the start of practice Oct. 5 for positions, and that she expects senior Ashley Newsome, who is still with the MSU volleyball team, to do the same.
Newsome, a 6-foot-1 forward from Florence, Ala., will be on scholarship with the women”s basketball team and will have one and a half seasons of eligibility remaining.
“We don”t know how she is going to be,” Fanning-Otis said. “We know as a high school player she was pretty dadgum good. She was recruited by a lot of SEC schools. She is mature, but she hasn”t played basketball.”
In a way, that also applies to the rest of the MSU team, which will continue to search for the best way to put all of its pieces together.
“I think every game we play you”re going to see growth, progress, and more depth as more players come back in for us,” Fanning-Otis said.
NOTES: Freshman Carnecia Williams recently dislocated a finger and needed surgery. Fanning-Otis said she is working back into the rotation. … Former North Panola High School standout Jenisha Jackson, who signed with MSU, didn”t qualify academically and is enrolled at Pensacola (Fla.) State College. … Guard Ashlie Billingslea has left the team for personal reasons.
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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