Lady Dogs Honored Paced by 'Tan and LaToya'

From the crowded Hunter Henry Center, a sparkling new state of the art edifice on campus, to a record turnout at The Hump, the Mississippi State University Lady Bulldogs are on the upswing.<P> A near overflow, stirring with anticipation and excitement, attended the annual Mississippi State Women's Basketball Awards Banquet Monday night, their expectations obviously escalating following another banner campaign.

There were accolades enough for everyone - even the fans - who've doubled, tripled and even quadrupled in recent years among those loyal to the Maroon and White.

Mississippi State is fortunate in many respects, not only for its great leadership, but for some of the "greatest fans" to be found anywhere at any level.

Mississippi State President Dr. Charles Lee praised all aspects of the program, the players for their class on and off the court, their parents, the coaches and staff and all the people behind the scenes.

"Thank you all for all the hard work," said Lee, noting the Lady Dogs' back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances the last two campaigns. "Thank you the players and especially the seniors. We are proud of you. Thanks to the parents and other family members."

Mississippi State Athletic Director Larry Templeton applauded the Lady Bulldogs and their coaches for reaching new heights.

"I'd like to welcome you on behalf of Mississippi State Women's Basketball, the all-time winningest team and the 13th best women's basketball team in America," pointed out Templeton to a thunderous crescendo of applause.

Templeton noted the "outstanding job" done by Jonathan Holmes, applauded Bonnie Hays (Secretary), John Correro and the M-Club, and to each of you who have "supported" Mississippi State Women's Basketball, a "hearty thank you."

Mississippi State's Sharon Fanning, the winningest women's basketball coach in school history, was applauded by Templeton, noting all-time career win 450 earlier this year, 139 of which have come in eight years at Starkville.

"Thank you for the leadership, you and your staff, thanks to the players, their parents and especially the three seniors, all of whom will graduate," said Templeton.

Mississippi State Associate Athletic Director-Women's Sports Samye Johnson, a leader in intercollegiate athletics, made a special presentation to one of college basketball's all-time greats - MSU's own four-time All-American LaToya Thomas, incidentally, who was honored Tuesday on "LaToya Thomas Day" in her hometown of Greenville, Miss.

The SEC's leading scorer for the fourth straight year, Thomas had to be in Atlanta, Ga., to receive an award at the NCAA Women's Final Four on the same evening she was to receive the Amateur Athlete of the Year Award in Mississippi to be presented by the Jackson Touchdown Club.

"This is an opportunity to thank all of you for helping make this basketball team one of the finest in the country," said Johnson of the Lady Bulldogs before making the special presentation.

"It's my honor and my privilege to present this award - Amateur Athlete of the Year Award - to an outstanding young woman - LaToya Thomas, who loves Mississippi State and who'll get her degree," said Johnson with an approving smile and to the delight of the banquet crowd.

An innovator who has engineered the rapid turnaround in Starkville, Fanning helped present the awards despite rotator cuff repairs during the off season.

Fanning guided Mississippi State to its highest finish ever in the power-laden Southeastern Conference, a tie for third place with a 10-4 league mark while earning a bye in the annual SEC Tournament for the first time in school history.

The Lady Dogs' eighth-year head coach recognized the "hard working" MSU staff - Sharon Allen, Stacey Franklin and Jocelyn McGilberry - and thanked school officials Dr. Lee, Larry Templeton and Samye Johnson for their support.

She thanked the fans, a school and state record for women's basketball - 6,055 for the LSU game Feb. 9 at The Hump - Associate Athletic Trainer Mary McLendon, Assistant Director of Media Relations Laura McCoy, Assistant Strength Coach Richard Akins, Bill Baker, and everyone who supports Lady Bulldog Basketball and promised everyone a special MSU "Feel The Heat" Poster.

Mississippi State's 2002-03 edition came within one point of knocking eventual SEC tourney champ Tennessee out of the title game, dropping a heart-breaking 76-75 decision in the semifinals at North Little Rock, Ark., while posting a 24-8 overall record, and tying for the best record in school history (1999-2000).

Fanning read an extremely long list of Thomas achievements without stopping once for a drink of water - a major accomplishment in itself, for the future WNBA lottery pick who has a scintillating resume.

Thomas and All-SEC sophomore Tan White of Tupelo, Miss., headed the awards. The first player to lead the SEC four straight years in scoring, Thomas was named Most Valuable Player, while capturing the Best Rebounder, Field Goal Percentage and Free Throw Percentage awards.

White received the Coaches Award, Most Assists and Most Deflections awards.

"Tan has a passion for the game, and a real competitive spirit," noted Fanning of the Lady Dogs junior to be.

Freshman guard Doceide Warren, of Dallas, Tex., who didn't get on the floor until December, was named the Most Improved Player, and is one of the many reasons Lady Bulldog fans have high expectations for the future.

Sophomore forward Rebecca Kates, of Cashion, Okla., was presented the Sonny Mullins Community Service Award and the Newsom Academic Award for having the highest GPA on the team.

Guard Blessing Chekwa, of Harvey, La., sidelined in the SEC Tournament with a knee injury, was named the Best Defensive Player, another "outstanding" first-year player.

The Sixth Player Award, a favorite of the coaching staff and the players alike, was presented to Rodney and Allison Pearson.

Senior plaques were presented to Renea Jones, of Laurel, Miss., Keisha Stringfellow, of Clinton, Miss., and Thomas.

"They were a fun group to watch, but of course, we're going to miss LaToya, Renea and Keisha," said longtime Lady Bulldog fan and women's basketball supporter Pattye Archer of Starkville. "But I can only see Sharon (Fanning) and her staff leading this team to even greater heights. There's so many talented young players on this team and we'll have some outstanding recruits reporting."

One day removed from Easter, there were gorgeous flowers aplenty, adding a special touch to an already special occasion.

Bennie Ashford, Darren Walker and Stacey Franklin put together the Highlight Video, an emotional venture that saw Mississippi State battle some of the best in the country from "The Hump" to "The Pit" in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the Lady Dogs advanced to the second round of the NCAA.

The consensus in Starkville is it's only going to get better.


Don Foster, a veteran newspaper writer who is the Sports Editor for the Starkville Daily News, writes a weekly article for Gene's Page. He can be reached by email at sdnsport@netdoor.com


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