Mississippi State improved to 20-8 and at 7-6 SEC is assured of no worse than breaking even in league play this year. But more than a winning conference mark is at stake in Sunday's regular-season ender at Alabama, as with twenty wins now the Bulldogs are thinking big. Big dancing, that is.
But for too long the league's 11th-place squad was too close for the home team's comfort, effectively dragging the Dogs down to their level. Both sides shot poorly enough in the first half that there were only 39 combined points at intermission, State having one more. Neither team played well in the period but that was to the Gamecocks' liking. "I thought they did a god job the first half changing things and scrapping and rebounding," MSU Coach Sharon Fanning said.
"It was frustrating," Porter said. "But we kept our heads and came out the second half and stepped up and played."
It was frustrating for observers as well when the teams missed 11 of their initial 12 shots, the long goal by State. South Carolina even snuck in front for a five-minute span, and as late as 8:06 all was even at 12-12. MSU forward Tyshekia Grimes broke the tie with her trey, though she was one of just three Dogs to score a bucket the whole first half.
Not for lack of trying, either. "The first half I thought we were playing selfish basketball," said Tate. "We talked about it in the locker room and in the second half, started playing together and rotating the ball. And we started getting physical."
As well as smarter in matchups, as Fanning challenged South Carolina by giving off-guard Alexis Rack more point-guard duty while normal ballhandler Armelie Lumanu moved to the wing. That gave State a bit more movement in the backcourt against the Gamecocks' man-defense. It also freed up some room around the goal for the best MSU offensive approach of the half: second-chance scores.
It began with Rack driving for a short flip that caromed off the iron right to center Chanel Mokango for a putback, foul, and free throw. Hard boardwork paid off again for Mokango with another rebound basket, then guard Mary Kathryn Govero came up with a rebound and banked it in. When Rack came up with a defensive rebound she was able to run end-to-end for a layup and 44-32 lead that had South Carolina calling for time at 5:45.
It was too late by then. Grimes and Mokango swatted away Gamecock drives at one goal, and the Dogs easily full-pressure for layups by Porter, Tate (twice), and Lumanu extending the margin to 17 points by the three-minute mark. And at 2:10 senior Porter was allowed to take her applauded exit from the home court, so classmate Lauren Roberts and then Tate could also bow-out at the home finale.
Chanel finished as top Dog scorer with 13 points while Rack added 11. Govero and Tate had nine and eight points in relief work. "Donnisha and Mary Kathryn gave us a big lift off the bench," Fanning said. State only made three treys all evening, but that was still one better than the Gamecocks. Guard Lakeisha Sutton led S.C. with 14 points while Tonia Williams added ten in relief work. The teams tied in overall rebounds, but Mississippi State had 16 offensive boards and turned them into 19 points.
Now its up to the Bulldogs to take a winning act on the road this weekend and then to Little Rock and the league tourney, where their post-season prospects will likely be decided. Normally the whole top half of the SEC is picked for NCAA berths, and right now State is in that side of the standings. But nothing is guaranteed at this point.
"We know it's not going to be easy," Tate said. "We're going to have to win this game against Alabama and go to the SEC Tournament and play hard. We're looking forward to it."
And should Mississippi State earn that chance to dance? "I don't think we've reached any plateau of what we're capable of doing as a team," Fanning said.