STARKVILLE — Armelie Lumanu trudged out of the team”s locker room following a loss to LSU in the Southeastern Conference tournament in North Little Rock, Ark.
Lumanu”s body language was in stark contrast to the emotion and energy she exhibited in the second half.
With less than eight minutes remaining, Lumanu stole the basketball near midcourt and was fouled seconds later.
“C”mon,” Lumanu yelled, as she high-fived and then hugged senior Donnisha Tate.
Lumanu missed the free throw, but Tate kept the ball alive and Lumanu helped MSU retain possession by throwing the ball off a LSU player.
The play earned Lumanu another round of high-fives, this time from Tate, Alexis Rack, Chanel Mokango, and Tysheka Grimes.
The plays ultimately weren”t enough in MSU”s 63-58 loss, but those two instances epitomized the growth of Lumanu this season.
Coach Sharon Fanning hopes Lumanu and her teammates continue to grow at 11 a.m. Saturday when No. 11 seed MSU (22-9) takes on No. 6 seed Texas (22-11) in the first round of the NCAA tournament West Regional in Columbus, Ohio.
The growth of Lumanu and Mokango, who transferred with Rima Kalonda to MSU from Southeastern Illinois College, has been a key ingredient to the Lady Bulldogs” return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002-03.
Not only have the players from Kinshasa, Congo, had to adjust to a new system and a new set of teammates, but they also have had to turn their games up a notch to better compete in the SEC.
The emotion Lumanu showed in the second half was the most expressive she has been this season.
After the game, she didn”t want to talk about her hustle plays only how she felt she let her teammates down.
“I feel sad because we came here not just to play one game and lose or to play two games and lose,” Lumanu said. “In the first half I didn”t play hard. I think I showed up in the second half but it was too late.”
Inconsistent play has plagued the Lady Bulldogs this season, especially down the stretch. MSU played three of its poorest first halves against South Carolina and Alabama to end the regular season and against South Carolina in the SEC tournament.
MSU trailed 18-0 against South Carolina in the SEC tournament before it regrouped, trailed 26-22 at halftime, and earned a 49-39 victory.
Lumanu, who is second on the team in scoring (10.8 points per game) and is tied for second in rebounding (5.7 per game), knows the Lady Bulldogs can”t afford another slow start Saturday. That”s why her comments after the LSU game are so revealing. She said she is trying to be more like a leader, or a mother, to her teammates and to play like NBA stars Kobe Bryant and LeBron James when her team needs her.
“I can step up and do like Kobe,” Lumanu said. “When I go to bed I think I can do this, I can do this, I can do this.”
After the game, Lumanu realized she didn”t do what she needed to do, so she told her teammates she was sorry. She felt if she had played like she did in the second half in the first half the Lady Bulldogs would have won.
MSU coach Sharon Fanning doesn”t want her players to have those kind of regrets Saturday. She is confident the Lady Bulldogs” defense can help set the tone Saturday against a team that has seven players averaging more than 6.3 ppg.
“The more you discipline yourself in your mind to stay focused to what you”re doing, the more you improve and the better you get,” Fanning said. “I think they have confidence in the defense and they know that is what has given them sparks and easier buckets. When they have played it really well, we have been in position to win ballgames.”
Fanning said one possession can make the difference between one missed assignment from becoming two or three or four. She said the Lady Bulldogs can”t afford to take any trips off.
Texas, which went 8-8 in the Big 12, comes into Saturday”s game having lost six of its past eight games.
Junior Brittainey Raven, a 6-foot guard, leads the Longhorns in scoring (13.3 ppg.). Sophomore guard Kathleen Nash leads the team with 47 3-pointers and in rebounding (6.7 per game) and is second in scoring (11.4 ppg.).
Ole Miss coach Renee Ladner, whose team lost to Texas 64-50 on Dec. 4, 2008, and lost twice to MSU this season, said she wasn”t going to pick a winner because the teams are so evenly matched.
“I think it is going to be a good game,” Ladner said. “I have a great deal of respect for both programs. They both have very good players. It will be just which team brings its best that particular day. I really can”t tell if one team is any better. I think Mississippi State will give Texas a run for its money.”
Fanning said she is excited to see if her players have grasped the concept and importance of playing with intensity and focus for 40 minutes. She still believes the team”s best game is ahead of it and she wants the season to continue.
“They have to decide they want to go the next step,” Fanning said. “They have to make a decision this is going to happen. If they make the decision, it will happen.”
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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