STARKVILLE — The first attempt didn”t produce results.
After getting fouled on a drive from the left wing, Porsha Porter missed two free throws.
But this night was going to be different. You could sense it from Porter”s demeanor.
Mississippi State coach Sharon Fanning-Otis could feel it, too. After all, Fanning-Otis watched in practice this week as Porter turned in a focused, consistent week.
Porter”s performance paid dividends Saturday, as she scored a career-high 15 points and matched a career-high with eight rebounds to help MSU defeat Utah 61-52 at Humphrey Coliseum.
“For the last three games I have been having bad games and wasn”t focused, so I tried to get myself prepared in practice and tried to work hard,” Porter said. “I guess it paid off in the game.”
Junior guard Diamber Johnson added a career-high 24 points, and Ashley Brown had her second double-double of the season (11 points, 10 rebounds) to help the Lady Bulldogs improve to 5-2.
As effective as Johnson was in a 9-of-18 shooting effort, Porter”s showing was even more impressive considering she was coming off a five-point performance in a victory against North Texas on Dec. 4 and entered the game against Utah (4-7) averaging only six points per game on 26-percent shooting from the field.
“I guess I wasn”t preparing myself,” Porter said. “I wasn”t focused like I was tonight and trying to help the team out coming with some energy.”
Porter has been bothered by a sore ankle and sickness in the past few weeks. Last week, she and her teammates also had the stress of final exams. Now that the schoolwork is out of the way, Porter and the Lady Bulldogs can re-focus on improving on getting tougher.
That subject was a matter of discussion after the game, as Fanning-Otis stressed to the players that they need to finish teams and not let them hang around. MSU led 33-21 at halftime and saw its advantage shrink to six points three times, but Porter hit a jump shot off a handoff that helped the lead grow to as many as 17, 55-38, with 5:13 remaining.
“There were a lot more positive things in practice this week,” Fanning-Otis said. “I felt she was more focused … and she was guarding harder. … Her field goal percentage has not been what it needed to be. She got to the free-throw line. … How she played today was a reflection of her practice.”
Junior center Catina Bett added seven points and three rebounds in 19 minutes in her first action in a MSU uniform. The transfer from the University of Kentucky joined the program last season but had to sit out until Saturday due to NCAA transfer rules.
The contributions of Johnson, Porter, Brown, and Bett helped MSU overcome a scoreless effort by Mary Kathryn Govero. The senior guard was 0-for-4 from the field and had four rebounds in 34 minutes.
Those ups and downs are typical of a team that has only one senior with extensive basketball experience, five junior college transfers, and four freshmen.
Porter, who was a first-team All-American last season at Jefferson (Mo.) College, quickly admitted things haven”t gone like she expected before Saturday”s game. In many games, she has appeared frustrated after not being able to hit perimeter shots or to finish drives to the basket. Porter has allowed the offensive struggles to take her out of the game and have limited her effectiveness on the defensive end.
Against Utah, though, she was different from the start. Her 3-pointer from the top of the key with 16 minutes, 37 seconds remaining in the first half gave MSU the lead (7-5) for good. She fed Johnson for another 3-pointer on the next possession.
“Porsha is an All-American and we know she can do it, but she had those problems and didn”t really attack the situation and the adversity,” Johnson said. “She was a lot more focused with her shot, and she has been more focused, and it paid off tonight.”
But everything wasn”t perfect, which also is the case for a young MSU team.
Porter had an unforced turnover on a routine pass back out to the top of the key. The miscue was one of five consecutive turnovers in the middle of the first half.
Later in the half, Porter dipped past a defender and spun the ball off the glass. The shot attempt had a little too much French pastry on it, and she was substituted out on the next dead ball.
In the second half, Porter created another turnover as she stepped in front of a defender on the baseline in a late attempt to set a screen.
Still, Porter remained focused. She drove aggressively to the basket from the left wing and ducked under her defender, converted a scoop layup, and completed the three-point play after the foul. The basket drew a smirk from MSU assistant coach Greg Franklin, who was seated on the bench. Franklin has worked with Porter on her shooting, and she said the hard work will pay off. She said the key is focus because she knows she can bring needed energy to the court.
“I need to bring more energy,” Porter said. “That is what I am here for. That is what coach Fanning wants, and that is what I am going to try to do, to bring energy to every game and to every practice.”
Fanning-Otis said Porter improved Saturday and that she was very proud of her effort. She said she and the Lady Bulldogs need to keep that focus if they want to realize their potential.
“As a new team together and a lot of players learning a lot of new things, you have seen us up and down,” Fanning-Otis said. “I see us improving. I see us understanding the game better I see us having better recognition of the sets and understanding angles and positioning and communicating the game better.
“If you focus and have great work ethic and great communication together, I think you”re going to get better. I think that is how you will view this team at the end of the year if you can get to that point.”
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.