The Sunday afternoon matchup of Mississippi rivals was billed as ‘Pack The Hump' Day. And while the announced 3,173 who showed up didn't exactly fill the building, they definitely rocked The Hump as their home team responded to a seemingly-sure loss with a remarkable rally. "The sixth player," Coach Sharron Fanning called the crowd. "As they got into it they made such a difference."
"The crowd was great," senior Robin Porter said. "They were into it the whole game. And they gave us momentum toward the end."
Of course fans in the stands couldn't score and defend. That was up to the Bulldogs on the court, who for three-quarters seemed playing a step slow at each task. As late as 8:51 of the last half State trailed by 15 points with no reason to anticipate a complete comeback…other than the urging the Dogs got from the fans, themselves, and a coach who during one called timeout was sufficiently vocal to be heard over the pep band.
"The second half we kept hearing coach tells us we can't let them come in our house and take it," guard Alexis Rack said. "Which we knew. But something just clicked."
Junior Rack certainly clicked down the stretch, sticking a couple of three-point goals to get the rally started and accounting for the clinching free throws at the end. At the same time it was Mokango, the junior transfer by way of SE Illinois College, blocking Rebel shots and snaring key boards. Her aggressive presence around the goal was the main reason Ole Miss did not score a basket of any sort in the final nine-plus minutes.
"You try to talk about just execution," Fanning admitted about her second-half timeouts. "But the bottom line is play hard. We just tried to tell them to stay after it, get in someone's face." As a result a Reb squad that was red-hot in the first period shot only 23% in the second and 39% for the afternoon.
Four Dogs scored in double-digits, led by Rack with 19 markers and three treys. Her 6-of-13 line (3-of-10 at the arc) didn't look so good, but it was because she took it on herself to make baskets in the last quarter that State was able to compete at all. As well as her work at the point each end. "She was active, she kept pushing the ball and made some good decisions," said Fanning.
Porter scored 17 points with 12 rebounds, while guard Armelie Lumanu added 15 points—all on twos. Skinny center Mokango had ‘only' 10 points but accounted for seven rebounds and no less than nine blocks, most of them in the last ten minutes. Ole Miss got 25 points from guard Bianca Thomas who was splendid for 30 minutes, knocking home seven of 13 three-point tries and three of those to open the second period. But she didn't get anything to fall the last ten minutes, which left Ole Miss' offense impotent when it mattered most. Forward Shawn Goff had a dozen points. And despite more bulk on the baseline, the Rebels were out-rebounded 43-34.
"The last nine minutes we got completely out of our gameplan," said UM coach Renee Ladner. "We didn't even run our offense, and we didn't play defense."
Neither side did much early defending as it took six trips before anyone missed a shot, and even then it was rebounded and scored. Mokango had six of the first eight MSU points for a brief lead before Thomas started the game's first real surge with a trey. In the opening quarter Ole Miss used their superior size to advantage and pushed out to a 21-8 lead, while the Bulldogs missed eight of nine shots.
Porter ended the MSU drought as a roller dropped, then popped from the corner for her only three-fer. After letting State as close as five points twice the Rebels got another run going with two more Thomas treys for a 13-point bulge. Only aggressive rebounding and putback points allowed State to hang within 38-31 at intermission, as they were out-shot 58% to 44% in the half.
"It looked like we were chasing them," Fanning said. "Thomas was getting open looks and they just outworked us." Thomas certainly did that by sinking shots from the left wing three times running, convincing the State coach to use a timeout at 17:39 with her team down 49-31. It took Porter free throws for the Dogs to get any scoring started in the half.
And, Porter and Lumanu coordinating their ‘switches' defensively to deny Thomas all the open looks she'd enjoyed to then. "I was telling them we needed to get it done, to get mad," Porter said. Still anger didn't put up points for a while and Thomas got her final three-ball at 10:03.
It took Rack to strike the spark as at 8:09 she was left open outside and cashed in. A minute later she did it again, and at 4:45 she bombed from 23 feet and was good. Quickly as that the Bulldogs were within 62-59 as Ole Miss had gone cold everywhere. Just as importantly, State was coming up with rebounds or loose balls and even forcing turnovers. "When you hit a couple of those shots the energy is contagious," Fanning said.
Rack pushed her perimeter luck once too often but Porter covered the long rebound and hit a two-point jumper. Lumanu took her eyes off a bounce-pass that would have put State ahead, but the Rebs re-turnovered the favor and this time guard Diamber Johnson got loose for a layup. The next trip, Rack dribbled in-place outside so long the UM defense came out…leaving a lane for the point guard to exploit. Her short jumper in the paint had State in front 65-62.
"I guess they were looking for me to shoot the three," Rack said. "So I was just taking what they were giving."
Free throws by Goff had Ole Miss back within one, and with the ball after Mokango didn't get positioned for a post-feed. But she made up for that by swatting Kayla Holloway's short shot, and on the other end Rack's drive drew a foul for two more charity chips. Naturally the Rebels looked for the long ball but Thomas forced one from far beyond even her range that drew nothing. Rack clinched the contest with two more free throws at 23 seconds.
"Effort, effort," said Fanning. "And don't ever give up." For that matter her Bulldogs showed resilience by responding to a 80-66 Thursday loss at Florida this well, though making it more dramatic than maybe necessary. Still the nature of the rally-victory will only help bring back portions of the good home crowd. And they will be needed this Thursday evening as State hosts Tennessee (7:00) in week-two of league action. The Lady Vols are the only SEC program Mississippi State has never beaten in three decades of trying.
"Hopefully we can continue," Fanning said. "This gives you momentum, hopefully that gives us expectation."