STARKVILLE — Diamber Johnson and Porsha Porter have been the engine that drives the Mississippi State University women’s basketball team all season.
When the senior guards are on, the Lady Bulldogs can compete with any team in the Southeastern Conference. When they struggle, MSU can get stuck in neutral and look like a team searching for answers.
For more than 30 minutes Sunday, MSU was its worst enemy, but Johnson and Porter delivered key plays in the face of increased degrees of difficulty to help MSU rally for a 53-50 overtime victory against the University of Mississippi before a crowd of 1,638 at Humphrey Coliseum.
“You have to find ways to win ballgames,” MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said. “You have to continue to expect to win, believe it, and find ways to get it done. I thought we pressed a little bit offensively in terms of some quick shots. But down the stretch you stay focused and you find a way to get it done.”
Johnson worked off a double screen to drain a 3-pointer with 5.3 seconds remaining in regulation. Porter (game-high 18 points, six rebounds, five steals, and three assists) nearly ended it in regulation when she stole the ensuing inbounds pass but missed a leaner on the baseline just before time expired.
Porter made up for the miss in OT by scoring six of the Lady Bulldogs’ 10 points in the extra session to send MSU (14-11, 4-8 Southeastern Conference) to its fifth win in a row against Ole Miss, and its seventh in the past eight meetings.
Ole Miss (12-14, 2-11) tied the game at 45 in OT. It cut the deficit to 51-50 on 1 of 2 free throws by Valencia McFarland with 10 seconds to play. Tia Faleru (six points, 12 rebounds) rebounded the miss but managed only an off-balanced shot that fell short. Johnson rebounded the miss and was wrapped up for a held ball that went to MSU. Porter hit two free throws with 4.2 seconds remaining to seal an improbable comeback.
“Once we got it to overtime, we already knew it was ours,” Porter said. “We just had to stay focused and play possession by possession and get defensive stops, and that’s what we did.”
Porter hit a high-arching pull-up jump shot to open the OT. Alwal (seven points, 10 rebounds, five blocked shots) scored on an offensive rebound putback to give MSU the lead for good. Porter then added another jumper off a screen by Alwal to give MSU a 49-45 lead.
Porter also had a key bucket in the final minute of regulation. The 5-foot-6 guard was forced to flip the ball over her shoulder while standing in the lane after a taller defender didn’t go for her up fake. The basket cut Ole Miss’ lead to 41-40 with 28 seconds to go in regulation.
Porter joked she doesn’t practice that shot in practice, just as Johnson said she doesn’t practice game-winning 3-pointers. Johnson’s play was more of a team effort that came off a broken play and utilized the timely screens of senior Ashley Brown and freshman Martha Alwal.
“I saw Porsha going up and I noticed my girl was behind me,” Johnson said. “I turned and I looked at Ashley and she was already trying to come find me. I told her to screen and Martha just so happened to be paying attention as well and came and got the second screen and got me wide open. That probably was the first time all game we were kind of reading each others’ minds.”
Johnson, who was honored prior to the game for becoming the program’s 19th player to eclipse 1,000 career points, missed her first 10 shots from the field. She didn’t make her first basket until 6:15 remained in the second half. Johnson said those struggles didn’t enter her mind when she came off the screens.
“I was getting frustrated, and toward the end of the game I told myself to calm down, you have to win this game,” said Johnson, whose mother, Adella, was at the game. Adella Johnson suffered a heart attack late last month. “That last shot was probably the first shot I took all game I wasn’t thinking about it. I just let it fly, and it felt good.”
MSU stayed in the game despite shooting 8 of 35 (22.9 percent) in the second half. The Lady Bulldogs trailed 37-27 with 12 minutes, 45 seconds to play after a jump shot by Monique Jackson (eight points, eight rebounds). But Ole Miss went 0 of 9 and committed five turnovers in the next 7:46, which allowed MSU to trim the margin to 37-36.
The Rebels pushed the lead back to 41-36 on two free throws by Jackson with 4:37 to go, but they didn’t score again until McFarland (team-high 16 points, four rebounds, three assists) hit two free throws with 16.4 seconds left to set the stage for Johnson.
“It hurts,” Ole Miss coach Renee Ladner said. “It was a gutsy, gutsy performance by our kids today. Our effort was outstanding. Our hearts and our minds were in the right place.”
Ole Miss lost despite grabbing a season-high 62 rebounds, including 23 on the offensive end. But MSU still had a 36-20 edge in points in the paint and a 14-13 advantage in second-chance points. MSU committed only nine turnovers, the second time this season it had less than 10 in a game, and forced 18 to help compensate for the rebounding disparity.
Ole Miss also was 12 of 22 from the free-throw line. It was 9 of 20 from the line in a 51-46 loss to MSU on Jan. 19 in Oxford. The Rebels shot 26.6 percent in that game, just better than their 25.4-percent effort Sunday, which was their second-worst of the season.
MSU was 8 of 15 from the free-throw line, 1 of 11 from 3-point range, and 29.7 percent from the field, its fourth time shooting less than 30 percent this season.
When it mattered, though, Johnson and Porter made sure MSU had the answers.
“Mississippi State made 1 of 11 threes and the only one that counted was the one that tied up the game,” Ladner said. “That’s what great players like Diamber Johnson can do. On that last possession we made a freshman mistake and she got a look, and she made a great play.
“Credit to Mississippi State. I don’t think they ever quit.”
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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