"Bonner's 19 points and 15 boards were very huge for them," said MSU coach Sharon Fanning "What really disappointed me was when their big kid (KeKe) Carrier was in we played like we were playing for a national championship, but when she was not in the game we did not play with as much focus or determination. Your mental toughness at this part of the season is so important. Auburn is a very good basketball team and they have not played many SEC games with Carrier and have been improving with her in the lineup."
Carrier is a 6-foot 7-inch sophomore who has the physical characteristics of a tight end. She nearly recorded first career triple-double against Alabama State with 11 points, 10 rebounds and nine blocks. But she missed six games due to a foot injury before returning to the floor against Alabama on Thursday when she scored five points, grabbed two rebounds and blocked two shots in eight minutes of playing time. Against MSU on Sunday, Carrier played ten minutes and did not score, had three rebounds and blocked one shot.
"I thought today was a tough day for her but you have to understand she has only had three practices," Nell Fortner, Auburn's head coach explained. "Her getting comfortable running up and down the court because she is in a boot all the time is a good thing. She has to get her mechanics back, her conditioning back. It is a struggle for her because she is such a difference maker with just her size that we can do some things in the game that you could not do with a six-footer. We're happy to have her back and we can't wait to get her back on track."
While MSU solved the problems Carrier created, there was no answer for Bonner, who had a three-inch height advantage on Imesia Jackson, MSU's tallest player. When Bonner was not wreaking havoc, 6-foot 1-inch freshman forward Jordan Greenleaf, who scored 10 points and had 9 rebounds, did.
It was that height and athletic combination that caused MSU to go scoreless for nearly seven minutes in the first half, when Auburn had an 11-0 run to establish a lead they would not relinquish. In the final nine minutes of the game, State managed only one field goal.
"We had good looks, good drives, and we just could not hit our shots," Fanning stated. "You have to keep your head up in those situations, because if your head goes down chances are you will miss your next shot. Playing through things and being mentally tough always carries over to success. If you do not play mentally tough you will not only mess up on your shooting, but also with rebounding and positioning."
State had several good looks on the offensive end of the floor in the first half but could not get the ball to go through the net. Some of the looks were from directly under the basket. Others were uncontested three-point shots.
In the first half, the Lady Bulldogs managed to connect on just one of their eight three-point field goal shots (12.5 percent). State made ten first half field goals on 36 shots (27.8 percent).
Being down 36-24 at the half, the Lady Bulldogs came out very focused in the second half and had a 10-3 run in the first two and half minutes to make most of the second half a very competitive game.
"Rebounding was a huge thing we talked about at half time," Fanning said. "We also went into the full court press which helped us. I tried to use our timeouts strategically so we would not get tired from pressing, and we did that well. My ultimate goal was for us to play harder, scrap harder, and play more focused. Down the stretch we would force the turnover and then we would go down and turn it over ourselves. I really wish we could have kept our early second half intensity going longer."
"I think our pressure defense helped us out," said MSU junior Imesia Jackson, who led MSU in scoring with 14 points and 9 rebounds. "When you play a bigger team, they are more than likely not going to be as fast as the smaller team. We just got some steals and made some baskets to get us back in it."
After MSU had cut into the Auburn lead, State trailed 39-34 with 17:33 left in the game. The two teams exchanged baskets over the next four minutes. When Auburn built out their lead to 11 points with 12 minutes left, in the game, Robin Porter, on consecutive possessions, had a trey and a lay-up to cut the margin to eight. Then Alexis Rack, who finished the game with 12 points, nailed a trey to make it a five-point margin with 9:47 left.
But the Auburn defense, led by Bonner, was so tenacious that MSU never got closer than two possessions and scored just one field goal in the final four minutes of the game. Jackson had field goals at the 9:05 and 4:26 mark. The main reason was Auburn's defense led by Bonner.
"She comes up with those a lot for us because she is such a versatile player," Fortner said. "She starts the game at the four and finishes the game at the three. She plays many positions for us and is such a tough match up for our opponent. She has just been a monster on the boards this year and that is one area of her game that has improved so much. I thought she had some big rebounds for us there in the end. We ask her to do a lot for us and she has always been willing to do that. I thought she got a lot of help from our post players on the boards today. DeWanna is a special player because she can play a variety of spots."
"I do not think we were rushing our shots," said MSU's junior forward Robin Porter who came off the bench to score 12 points and collect 8 rebounds. "I think we were just trying to push it, get it in the goal and make a stop on defense. We just wanted to keep it going, but our shots just would not fall for us."
"We did not play hard for forty minutes today," Fanning admitted. "Their seventeen offensive boards were fairly significant, even though the overall rebounding was fairly similar. We came back in the second half, coming out and pressuring them and cut the lead to five points, but we come back and turn the ball over and didn't hit the free throws when we need to."
A big factor in this game was Auburn's mental approach. Auburn hosts Tennessee and travels to Vanderbilt this coming week. They have home games remaining against Georgia and Ole Miss. All of those teams are ahead of both MSU and Auburn in the standings.
"It's hard to talk about that in this league because every game is so important, especially when you are just fighting for wins," Fortner said. "We have lost home games this year that were tough losses for us. So we're trying to get our feet back under us. We lost our 6'7" kid for the first seven games of the conference so we're trying to get her back into it. She is a big part of what we do but she is not back yet, but she still causes a lot of problems when she is on the floor. We're trying to get our feet back under us with her in the game, with her back on the team. You can not ever look ahead in this league but now we will talk about it but you couldn't before."
For Mississippi State, they host Savannah State at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday before traveling to Florida next Sunday. The Lady Tigers (8-15) host Coastal Carolina on Monday night.
"We need to get more focused before we play another ball game," Fanning said. "We got out worked today, because our focus was not where it was supposed to be. We need to play with focus and be concerned about how the Lady Bulldogs will be a better basketball team this Thursday. We better be ready to play whether it is a conference game or not."
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.