Center Natasha Henderson and guard Heather Hollis combined for 21 points in the, which sends State into a championship round matchup with #20-ranked Purdue tomorrow evening at 7:00. The Boilermakers defeated Centenary 70-48 in Monday's early game. It was Mississippi State's 28th-straight win in their homecourt tournament since 1980, with Coach Sharon Fanning raising her record in the event to 17-0.
"When you hustle you make your breaks," Fanning said. Her team certainly did that, seizing sufficient opportunities on each end of the court to hold off a scrappy Morehead State squad. "I thought we played well," said Henderson, who matched a career-high with a dozen points. Four of her baskets came on offensive rebounds, typical of the way the Bulldogs got things done. State had a 10-2 edge in points off fastbreaks, and some of those baskets turned an uncomfortable contest into a double-digit win in the final minutes.
"You have to defend and rebound to be able to run, and we did a better job of that," said Fanning. "I thought we guarded smarter down the stretch and got to the free throw line."
Five Eagles scored in double-digits, led by guard Megen Gearhart with 15 points and three treys. Forward Anita Smith-Williams came off the bench for a dozen points and forward Patti White had 12 more. But Morehead State shot only 39% for the game and turned the ball over 26 times.
"It was a hard-fought game," said Eagle Coach Matthew Mitchell, a 1995 Mississippi State alumnus and former high school coach in the state. "Both teams competed hard. I just don't know if we were athletic enough to make enough plays to win the game. We had some defensive breakdowns on the rebounding that really prevented us from winning the game."
In the early going both squads seemed to be thinking more of the upcoming holiday break than playing ball, as they combined to miss 13 of the first 17 shots. Warren sparked an 8-0 Bulldog run that helped push State out to a 19-9 lead by 7:43 on a fastbreak by Blessing Chekwa.
Morehead State chopped the deficit in half on three-pointers by Gearhart and Jessie Plante and got within 24-19. It was Henderson who did the most to keep the Bulldogs in charge, hitting the boards and converting second chances to make the intermission margin 32-23.
Still the Eagles weren't leaving Humphrey Coliseum early, as White stuck consecutive three-pointers to open the new half. A more traditional three-point play by LaKrisha Brown had State's lead down to 34-32. Marneshia Richard halted the momentum with a driving layup, a Bulldog steal became a Henderson bucket, and Heather Hollis made four-straight free throws. When guard Doceide Warren finished a drive State was out in front 50-36 at 13:29. And still Morehead State wasn't through, putting together a 13-4 run with Plante and Gearhart striking from long range.
It was still a five-point game, 61-56, when MSU guard Robin Porter drove the lane for a short jumper. A Richard rebound fed Porter for a fastbreak, and guard Blessing Chekwa and backup center Mamie McKinney each scored to push the advantage out to 13 points at 3:15. The Eagles got no closer than nine points again. Morehead State actually won the rebounding race, 43 to 36, but the Bulldogs got the more critical and scoreable boards. "There were some offensive boards that were just key," said Fanning.
Hollis and forward Miayorka Johnson each had ten points, and while only three Dogs scored in double-figures all nine who got on the court had at least six points. "I'm proud of the balanced scoring," Fanning said. "We had 32 points off the bench." And the coach was particularly pleased with a well-rounded effort from rookie point guard Richard with seven points, four assists, two steals, and five boards.
By winning, State gets to play a ranked foe for the first time ever in a MSU Classic. The Boilermakers are 7-2 and will start four players standing 6-feet or taller. "They're a bigger team, of course," said Fanning. "And they have a lot of people you have to guard."
"We're just going to scout and prepare and come out like today, play team defense," said Warren.
Centenary and Morehead State will play a 4:30 consolation game Tuesday.