Auburn improved to 25-1 for the season with a fifth-straight win and maintained sole hold on first place in the SEC standings at 10-1. The Bulldogs had their three win-streak snapped, slipping to 19-7 and 6-5 SEC. Yet as the game clock wound inside two minutes with a tied scoreboard State had two shots to take a lead and change the course of the conference race.
"I'm proud of our effort and fight," said Fanning.
For their part Auburn was just plain proud to have Bonner, a guard with forward skills and center size and the leading candidate for SEC player of the year. Bonner's 25 points exceeded her own averages (20.8 overall, 23.9 SEC games), but the senior had to work harder for everything. "They did a great job, they were physical and came out and just tried to attack me," said Bonner, who wasn't exaggerating; she went to the free throw line a dozen times and made good on 11 chances. In fact Auburn had only one more field goal than free throw, 21 to 20.
By contrast the home team took just seven trips to their charity-strips, and while Fanning didn't critique how it came about the margin was much on her mind. "That's an area we have to try to outscore our opponent, and 20 to 6 is not going to win games for the most part."
Bonner wasn't a one-cat act as Tiger true guards Whitney Boddie and Sherell Hobbs added 18 and 13 points. In fact only five Auburn players scored and there was a lone bucket provided by the thin bench. And the visiting team won despite making just one three-point basket all afternoon.
State got 15 points from point guard Alexis Rack, though she had to put up 23 shots to do it and was 2-of-12 at the arc as Auburn mostly went with an extended zone defense that limited inside opportunities. Forward Robin Porter had 13 points and eight rebounds, while guard Armelie Lumanu was held to six points but did get to ten rebounds. State came away with a 39-33 edge in rebounding against a stouter Tiger team, even with center Chanel Mokango confined to the bench by fouls much of the second half.
Both sides started fast but inefficient, combining to shoot 3-of-14 in the first four minutes as the Bulldogs missed four-straight tries from the arc. They were better off inside it and shorter jumpers by guard Mary Kay Govero and Rack lured the Tigers out of their wide zone defense briefly…which allowed Rack to stick a long shot for a 13-6 lead at 14:00.
Bonner had her own struggles, missing her first four shots and not getting on the scoreboard until 13:44 with free throws. Hobbs picked up the slack with a driving basket and first Tiger trey. Broddie scored twice around a MSU timeout while on the other end Auburn revised the zone and put the 6-4 Bonner out on top. It took a few series before Rack was able to work open for a three and a short State lead. Bonner erased that advantage and the halftime difference was 35-29 in favor of the Tigers.
"She's such an inside-outside kid and challenges you defensively," said Fanning. The challenge got even greater when Mokango picked up a fourth foul at 16:58 and would sit almost ten full minutes. Yet her backup Loren Roberts was left alone to hit a three and after a long dry spell for both squads Porter popped a go-ahead jumper at the ten-minute mark.
"I was proud how we got back ahead, there was a look in our eyes," said Fanning. The lead changed regularly as Bonner converted on three-straight drives for tough layups, while State got Porter free shots and a three from Govero for a 49-49 tie. It was still even going to the two-minute as the Dogs threw the baseline pass away; and a minute later Lumanu passed to the wrong team. Bonner, who had sat for a couple of series after taking an elbow to the skull, finished the fastbreak for a 57-55 scoreboard.
Rack had to force a jumper that missed but State got the loose rebound only to see Porter's tie-attempt rim awry. This time Bonner covered the carom and was fouled for two good chances and a four-point cushion…that Rack chopped to one on her three-point play at 18.1 seconds.
State had Auburn's first inbounds set covered; the second worked and Govero had to foul Boddie. Her free shots made for a three-point lead and Rack's long try to tie missed wide. Hobbs sealed the win at 5.6 from the foul line.
"The finish where we had transition going was not good, the spacing and the decisions," Fanning said. "We have to expect right there to put it away."
Instead, State now has a week to prepare for a Sunday trip to Tennessee that signals the three-game closing stretch on this schedule. The Bulldogs have given away some momentum gained in wins over LSU and Ole Miss, and are jammed in the middle of a tight SEC pack with no margin left for error in both league seeding and post-season standing.
"We're still confident," said Rack. "We feel we missed a few box-outs, a few layups that could have changed the game easily. So we're still confident."