Tall Task For Undersized Lady Dawgs

Before the 2004-2005 Mississippi State women's basketball season started, head coach Sharon Fanning and the rest of the Lady Bulldogs highlighted one of their main goals as making it to the NCAA Tournament. There are many factors that must blend together for that goal to come true this spring. One of those factors is great defensive play and that is what two Lady Bulldog juniors are working hard on to take Mississippi State dancing in March.

Guard/Forward Blessing Chekwa and forward Mamie McKinney specialize in causing problems for opponents on the offensive end with energy and toughness that translates into tenacious defense. Chekwa's ability to shut down high profile offensive players along with McKinney's skill in rebounding, combine to form the nucleus of the Southeastern Conference's sixth best scoring defense. The Lady Bulldogs are also second in the league in three-point field goal defense holding opponents to 26.8 percent from behind the arc.

On the court Chekwa is often given the assignment to defend the opponents' best offensive player.

"My main goal for this year is to be the defensive stopper on the team," said Chekwa. "I want to concentrate on being physical inside and getting the defensive rebound that we need. If there is an open shot on the offensive end I will take it, but my focus is on defense."

Chekwa had a career-high in rebounds this season with 11 against South Alabama (12/5/04) and most recently grabbed eight vs. Kentucky (1/20/05).

As the Lady Bulldogs continue play through the rugged SEC schedule, the 5-10 Chekwa is putting herself on the line every game to compete against opposing post players who have a distinct height advantage. Coach Fanning understands what Chekwa has accomplished in her years at MSU and the important role she plays every time she steps on the floor.

"Blessing plays as hard as any player I have coached," said Fanning. "She has overcome adversity with more perseverance and mental toughness than I have ever seen. Blessing always gives us a lift with her defense, rebounding, or transition buckets. When I look up the word winner, Blessing's name will definitely be there."

Chekwa, a Harvey, La. native, is majoring in kinesiology and has aspirations to attend Physical Therapy School upon her completion at MSU. Ideally she wants to own her own Physical Therapy Clinic. The desire to make physical therapy a profession came to Chekwa in the midst of her multiple injuries.

"I felt like it was something I have already been through and I will be able to help others out in the same struggles that I went through," explained Chekwa.

Chekwa is only about 90 percent healthy after fighting back from three off-season surgeries performed before her sophomore season, for her torn ACL, shoulder and back.

"The cold weather does not help the recovery process very much," said Chekwa. "It tightens up on me every now and then but I am getting back to where I need to be physically."

She has missed two games this season due to injuries. Chekwa missed the Alabama game due to an illness and then the Vanderbilt and LSU games due to a sprained joint capsule in her left knee. Her absence was felt in all three games as Mississippi State was outrebounded by an average of 17.0 rebounds per game. In the 19 other games Chekwa has played in, Mississippi State is only being outrebounded by .05 boards a game. The Lady Bulldogs will need Chekwa's presence in the post in the stretch through the SEC and into postseason play.

Another key component to the Lady Bulldogs this season is Mamie McKinney. McKinney hails from Tallahassee, Fla. and is a business information systems major. On the court McKinney is currently tied for 17th in the SEC in rebounding, averaging 5.6 rebounds per game. She also works hard on the offensive end to get rebounds and give the Lady Bulldogs more opportunities to score.

"Mamie is becoming a player at both ends of floor," said Fanning. "Her quickness and anticipation create some easy transition baskets through her defense. She is gaining confidence around the bucket and seems to have the right mind set for continued improvement. As Mamie expects more consistency, I think you will see a player who helps us win a lot of SEC games."

McKinney is tied for 13th in the league in offensive rebounds. She had a season-high nine rebounds against Loyola (11/27/04) and matched that number again against Southeastern Louisiana (12/16/04) and once more in SEC play against Arkansas (1/16/05).

"Even though we are a smaller team this year, Coach Fanning still puts an emphasis on rebounding on both ends of the floor," said McKinney. "When our shots are not falling we have to get on the boards and get more chances to score. We have to keep the energy flowing on the floor on both sides of the ball and sustain that energy throughout the game."

The Lady Bulldogs are 9-1 this season when they out rebound their opponent, 1-1 when rebounding is equal and 4-6 when they have been out rebounded.

McKinney's rebounding ability is vital this season for the Lady Bulldogs if they want to make a run into the NCAA Tournament.

Together McKinney and Chekwa account for 26 percent of the Lady Bulldog's total rebounds. Their presence in the post must be felt for MSU to have any kind of success.

State's ability to rebound on both ends of the floor could fuel the Lady Bulldog's high power offense to be even more efficient in transition. Everything starts on the defensive end and that is where a run into March could start for the Lady Bulldog basketball team in 2005.

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