In the first 13 minutes of the game, both teams played evenly on the scoreboard, but MSU established themselves by out-hustling their opponent. State anticipated the Arkansas gameplan with solid defensive play. They used that momentum on the offensive end of the floor and played unselfishly. With 7:29 left in the first half, each team had 23 points. MSU went on a 17-4 run to take firm control of the game. State had a 40-27 lead with 3:33 left prior to the intermission.
During that stretch, MSU shots fell. State finished the first half making 16 of 32 shots from the field (50 percent) and 6 of 10 from the three-point line (60%). State had eight assists, eight steals and blocked two shots, while forcing ten Arkansas turnovers that became 14 MSU first half points.
"We were moving the ball and penetrating," said Marneshia Richard. The MSU guard finished the game with 19 points. "We were moving the ball and getting good open shots. Fifty percent of the time if we get good open shots, we should make it."
During the media timeout with about four minutes remaining in the first half, Arkansas changed from a man to a 2-3 defense. That change seemed to work for the Lady Razorbacks as they broke the MSU rhythm and established momentum for themselves.
"Mississippi State played hard," Arkansas coach Susie Gardner said. "They were getting in the passing lanes, and getting some deflections, which allowed them to make easy baskets. They are very quick, and they would get a steal and lay it up one on zero. Mississippi State penetrated exceptionally well to the basket. That is why we tried to settle down and play some zone, which we never play, but that is what got us back in the game."
Coming out of the locker room after the intermission, Arkansas stayed in the 2-3 zone. MSU could not muster any semblance of an offense, scoring just one basket for the first ten minutes. The change of defense helped Arkansas to a 23-5 run that started in the later stages of the first half and gave the visitors from Fayetteville a 50-45 lead at the midway point in the second half.
"They went to a zone near the end of the half and we began to settle for shots," Fanning said. "We did a poor job of rebounding down the stretch of the first half. When they got big rebounds, they made shots. That changed the pace of the game going into halftime. You have to play hard on both ends of the floor and be confident in your shots. Including the first part of the second-half we struggled scoring for about ten minutes. We were passing the ball around the perimeter and not cutting the gaps. We did not have good spacing and did not play focused like we needed to be. We have to be better in those scenarios."
"They (Arkansas) were changing up defense on us and we could not get into the right flow," Richard explained. "They were in the zone and man to man and sometimes they were pushing up on us and we did not have the continuity that we needed to have. So we needed to calm down and recognize defenses and try to run our offense."
MSU took playing from behind as a challenge and promptly responded in a positive manner. Trailing by five points at the midway point in the second half, State began hitting shots. Over the next five minutes, MSU regained the lead with a 15-5 run with sheer hustle, confidence in their abilities and forcing the action.
"We were big on getting a defensive stop," said freshman guard Alexis Rack who scored a game-high 20 points. "As soon as we got that we just knew that the offense was going to come. We were finding each other."
Knowing it was anyone's game and the winner of the final five minutes would take the win, MSU began pressuring Arkansas again by stepping into the passing lanes and forcing mistakes.
"We did not play very well to start and finish the game," Gardner admitted. "We have to put more of a total effort together. I was proud though, because we lost to LSU and Vanderbilt, and we could have put our head down but our team was together very well tonight. We were very positive on the sideline, there were no pointing fingers, and we gave ourselves a chance to win. At the end Mississippi State hit huge shots to win."
State did make some big shots. With three minutes left in the game, each team had 60 points on the scoreboard. Someone had to take the challenge of winning this game personally.
Rack missed a three-point shot, but Washington was under the basket to grab the rebound and score an easy lay-up. Washington then stole the ball from Donica Cosby. As she was going toward the basket, Sarah Pfeifer got called for an intentional foul. Washington canned a pair of free throws. A second later, Imesia Jackson got a lay-up off a Robin Porter assist and MSU had a quick six-point lead.
Trailing 66-60 with three minutes left, Arkansas knew they had to connect on the three-point shot. Cosby made a three-pointer to cut the MSU lead in half. Cosby led the UA scoring attack with 18 points.
What Arkansas did not do was defend that same shot on the other end of the floor. Rather than run clock and wait for a foul, Rack played string music off a Porter assist.
A two-point Pfeifer field goal coupled with a free throw, cut the MSU in half once again. Pfeifer scored 15 points in the game. Leslie Howard and Lauren Ervin added 14 and 10 points respectively for the Lady Razorbacks.
MSU needed another big shot. Rack was part of the scoring play, only this time it was on the assist end, as Richard connected on a three-point field goal.
"We have to make some buckets and be confident in the shots we take," Fanning said. "I am trying to give our team freedom with their shot selection, because they know what shots they can make, and they know how confident they feel in their abilities. Marneshia usually looks to pass first, but I was proud that she began hitting some big shots down the stretch. We have to have the courage to take the big shots down the stretch. If we are not making them we have to be tough enough to bang inside and grab the rebounds. I was proud of how we stepped up tonight and hit some big=time shots."
In addition to Rack and Richard, Jackson scored 11 points before fouling out with 15 seconds left in the game. Washington scored 10 points and had 12 rebounds. With Jackson in foul trouble, Porter accepted the challenge of playing against a physically larger opponent.
"Down the stretch, when Imesia was in foul trouble it seemed reasonable to put Robin at the four," Fanning explained. "I called her out at halftime and told her she had no rebounds, and that is something she did very consistently last year. We need Robin to hit the boards, even if she does not grab every rebound she goes after. It is crucial that she chases the ball to try and keep it alive."
Porter scored 7 points, as did Tysheka Grimes.
The win gave the Lady Bulldogs their fourth win in a row and 10th win in their last 13 games. With the exception of losing three straight Southeastern Conference games in early January to ranked teams, MSU has been on a winning streak dating back to mid-December.
"I'm tickled to death that we're winning ballgames," Fanning said. "Even though we had some lapses tonight, we played really well down the stretch. We picked up our defense and guarded hard. February is a tough month because it is a new season. We are going to have a lot of things thrown at us that we are not used to. We are going to have teams full-court press us, half-court trap defenses, frequent substitutions, switches from zones to man-to-man, and we have to be ready for this.
"(Arkansas) played many combinations tonight. At one point they had four kids in that can play the post for them. People are playing for their seeding now, and playing for a spot in the tournament. We have to learn from the mistakes tonight, because everyone is going to play us more focused now."
On Sunday, MSU hosts Auburn in a 2:00 p.m. contest. Fans should have plenty of time to attend that game and support the Lady Bulldogs but still have enough time to return home to watch Super Bowl XLI. Playing at home on Thursday, Auburn (16-7, 3-4 SEC) won a 93-61 game over Alabama (10-12, 0-8 SEC).
"DeWanna Bonner can play any spot on the floor and contribute," Fanning said. "KeKe Carrier is 6-foot 7 and plays inside but she may be injured. Whitney Boddie is a good point guard that can break down almost any opponent. She can take a shot from the perimeter or go baseline to baseline. I expect them to guard us hard and change defenses on us. They rebound well because they are a quick and athletic team with great size. Every team we play has a size advantage. We have to be quick and guard them hard and smart."
The SEC women's tournament begins March 1st in Duluth, GA. There is no east/west division in women's basketball. The top four teams get a first-round bye. Tennessee is undefeated in conference play. LSU, Georgia and Ole Miss each have 6-2 conference records. With a 5-3 SEC mark, MSU and Vanderbilt have a legitimate opportunity to sit out the opening round of the tournament. Both the Commodores and the Rebels will visit Humphrey Coliseum later this month.
Andy Kalinowski, known on the internet as Andy K, writes about Mississippi State women's basketball for the Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website. He can be reached by email at Andy_Kalinowski@yahoo.com.