STARKVILLE — As much as she tried, Diamber Johnson wasn’t herself.
Up since 5:30 a.m. Thursday to take care of her mother, Adella, who suffered a heart attack, the Mississippi State University senior guard didn’t realize she hadn’t eaten anything all day until she returned to Humphrey Coliseum later in the day.
Johnson did her best to settle her mind and then ate some chocolate to give her a jolt she hoped would settle her stomach.
The University of Arkansas didn’t cooperate.
Instead, the Razorbacks stretched a 2-3 zone defense to limit Johnson to two points and then attacked the Lady Bulldogs in the second half en route to a 51-35 victory before a paid crowd of 1,125 at Humphrey Coliseum.
“We just really didn’t do the little things,” Johnson said. “We came back and won the last game (against Auburn University on Sunday), but we are still doing stuff to hurt us. This time, we didn’t have the energy to keep fighting and come back. We just didn’t have the same kind of punch we had last week.”
The 86 points were the fewest scored in the 29-game series. The previous low came in Arkansas’ 56-42 victory on Jan. 27, 2008, in Fayetteville, Ark.
There were plenty of other lowlights for MSU:
n Johnson, who entered the game as the SEC’s leading scorer at 17.9 points per game, was held to her lowest output of the season on 1-of-10 shooting, including 0 of 4 from 3-point range.
n Johnson and senior guard Porsha Porter, who entered the game as the SEC’s leading scoring duo (31.6 ppg.), finished with 11 points on a combined 3-of-21 shooting (0 of 9 from 3-point range). The total was the second-lowest of the season. They scored eight points in a 53-48 loss to LSU on Jan. 5 when Porter was sick.
n MSU shot its second-lowest percentage from the field (25.5 percent, 13 of 51) and had 22 turnovers against five assists. Johnson, the team leader in assists per game at 4.3, didn’t have an assist in a game for the first time this season.
Johnson told MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis when she returned from caring for her mother that she didn’t have the energy she typically has and that she would try to give everything she had. She said Arkansas’ zone necessarily wasn’t the reason for her lowest scoring game of the season and that she tried to draw defenders and create openings for her teammates.
“Of course it affected my play,” Johnson said of her mother’s heart attack. “I didn’t have the energy to do what I needed to do tonight. … I let what was going on at home affect my play tonight.”
Johnson, who is from Michigan, said her siblings were on their way to Mississippi to help take care for their mother. She said her mother was doing better after suffering the heart attack Thursday morning.
Fanning-Otis credited Arkansas for using its length and size at the top of the zone to slow her team’s rhythm. Still, she said the Lady Bulldogs (13-7, 3-4 SEC) didn’t do a good job setting screens or working off them to get better shots.
“The first half there were so many screens that weren’t set or used,” Fanning-Otis said. “We just have to see the game better and know where to be.”
Arkansas coach Tom Collen said his team typically uses player-to-player defense 75 percent of the time and zone maybe 25 percent. He said the Razorbacks (15-5, 4-4) used a zone defense effectively in their last game, a 72-52 victory against LSU on Sunday, and went to it again Thursday to win their fourth straight SEC game.
“We switched to the 2-3 and I thought we did a good job of tracking her,” Collen said. “She might have contributed to that a little herself by not making shots. Let’s face it, they need her to score. They struggle to score a little bit, and they need her to score to win games. Fortunately, whether it was our great defense or her shot was just off, one way or another it was a big difference for us.”
Arkansas used 5-foot-9 Kierra Peak, 6-2 Ashley Daniels (10 points, 14 rebounds), 6-0 Dominique Robinson, and 5-9 C’eira Ricketts (game-high 14 points) up top against Johnson, who is 5-7. She was able to work around a high screen at the top of the key and move into space for an open jump shot with 13 minutes, 20 seconds remaining in the game. Her only field goal cut Arkansas’ lead to 31-25. MSU crept to 34-30 three minutes later on a free throw by Catina Bett, but the Lady Bulldogs didn’t get any closer. Porter’s jump shot was the last field goal MSU hit. It went 0 of 11 from the field and committed eight turnovers in the final 11:25.
“I think we did fall susceptible to the ball screens a little early when we were in our man to man, but when you go to zone you take them out of that a little bit,” Collen said. “The zone offense they run this is probably the fourth or fifth time we have seen it, so we have drilled it pretty hard, so we knew how to shift in the zone. We knew they were trying to get their shooters in the corners, so we did a good job of taking that away.
“Diamber Johnson is an aggressive scorer, but she is really trying to run her ballteam more than she is just shoot first. She didn’t get involved early, and when she tried to get involved late and she missed I think she just got frustrated.”
On the other end, Arkansas used 25 offensive rebounds, its third-highest total of the season, to earn a 32-18 edge in points in the paint and an 18-4 advantage in second-chance points.
MSU started strongly even though Johnson took only three shots and didn’t score in the first half. It played with intensity on defense and forced Arkansas into 11 turnovers in the first 20 minutes. But after building a 16-10 lead with 7:53 to play in the opening half, MSU went 0 of 10 from the field with three turnovers. Arkansas, which went scoreless for 4:43 in the first half, closed on the half on an 11-0 run to seize momentum.
“I think rebounding and turnovers definitely defined us in this basketball game,” Fanning-Otis said.
Martha Alwal and Porter paced MSU with seven points apiece. Alwal had 14 rebounds and six blocked shots. Porter also had four steals.
MSU will play at 1 p.m. Sunday (Fox Sports Net) at the University of South Carolina.
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.