MSU Hoop Teams Ranked; 'Big Week' Looms

Both the Mississippi State men's and women's basketball teams can be found in this week's Associated Press Top 25 Polls, one of only two Southeastern Conference schools which can make that claim.<P> Oddly enough, the two conference schools being referred to have Bulldogs for their mascots - Mississippi State and Georgia!

Highest ranked of the foursome, Mississippi State's Lady Bulldogs moved up one spot in the AP weekly poll released Monday to No. 14 in the nation, one notch above South Carolina.

The Lady Dogs have won five of their last six games and 11 of their last 13, including back-to-back league decisions over Vanderbilt and Ole Miss. It was MSU's third straight win over the Lady Rebels and eighth in the last 10 meetings.

Meanwhile, the Bulldogs, ranked No. 22 in the country, are happy to be returning home this week after a couple of rugged road battles at LSU and Alabama.

Both MSU teams have key upcoming SEC dates with Rick Stansbury's "hard-luck" Dogs anxious to bounce back Wednesday against a very good South Carolina team, while Thursday Sharon Fanning's Lady Dogs host dangerous Auburn. The two marquee SEC battles are ticketed for The Hump in Starkville.

The Women's Top Twenty Five is dominated by the SEC with three league teams ranked in the Top 10 headed by No. 4 Tennessee, once-beaten and No. 6-ranked LSU and "giant killer" No. 8 Arkansas, which made the Lady Tigers one of its victims over the weekend at Fayetteville, Ark.

Mississippi State (13-3, 2-1 SEC) heads the next group from the SEC followed by No. 15 South Carolina, No. 18 Vanderbilt, and No. 24 Georgia, which joins Mississippi State as the only other league school with both its men and women ranked. Auburn also received votes for the AP Top 25.

"It's a reward, a tremendous opportunity to be ranked, to be recognized within the framework of working toward winning a championship," said Fanning. "It's all part of the process."

The Lady Bulldogs veteran coach, who has led the turnaround of the program in Starkville, said the main emphasis is to try to focus on improving with each game while continuing to be competitive.

"No doubt, you have to want to improve to become a better team over a 40 minute game or ever how long it takes to win if the game goes into overtime," added Fanning, who along with her staff now must prepare for another key SEC test against a physically-imposing Auburn bunch.

Fresh off an impressive, 65-61, win Sunday over cross-state rival Alabama on the Plains, Auburn (13-3, 1-2 SEC) was led by Natasha Brackett with a career-high 30 points, Tia Miller with 15 and veteran Le'Coe Willingham with eight rebounds.

"Auburn's a big team with a lot of depth and they will come in here with a lot of momentum. They have size, athletic ability, and they defend," added Fanning.

Idle over the weekend after difficult road dates at Baton Rouge, La., and Tuscaloosa, Ala., the Bulldogs held on at No. 22 in the AP Poll despite another tough SEC midweek road loss, a heart-breaking, 68-62, overtime setback at Alabama, not exactly in a friendly atmosphere.

"Rick's Rowdies" as well as the "road weary" Bulldogs and all the Maroon and White contingent will be happy to be back home Wednesday night at The Hump in Starkville as MSU hosts South Carolina (7-7, 1-3).

Mississippi State assistant coach Robert Kirby, who joined the "Voice of the Bulldogs" Jack Cristil on the Rick Stansbury TV Show debut, said South Carolina is a very good ball club.

"They were hit with some injuries early this year, but they are starting to get everyone back now. We'll need to get our game faces on and be ready," he said.

Kirby said sophomore 7-0 center Marcus Campbell was sick and missed practice, but other than that, everyone is healthy.

Junior all-American candidate Mario Austin was banged up in the Florida game to launch SEC play but is expected to be back at full speed for Carolina.

"Mario's knee is better and he should be back at 100 percent," said Kirby, adding that the "Dogs have to get back to doing what we do best, which is defending and rebounding."

Mississippi State senior point guard Derrick Zimmerman of Monroe, La., may have put it best.

"We're tired of losing," said Zimmerman, who led the scoring for the Dogs against Alabama with 15 points on 5-of-6 shooting from the field.

Mississippi State (10-4, 0-3 SEC) came ever so close to snapping their SEC skid in a tight league duel against the Crimson Tide, however that was little consolation, although the Maroon and White took the fight to 'Bama and came within a few seconds of bringing back a key win before falling in overtime.

Sophomore guard-forward Ontario Harper of Clinton., Miss., the oldest player on the MSU squad after he attended Winchendon Prep (MA), joined Zimmerman in double figures with 12 points while Michal Ignerski and Austin and had eight points each.

No. 5 Florida is the highest ranked SEC men's team followed by No. 8 Kentucky, No. 15 Alabama, No. 19 Georgia, No. 22 MSU and No. 24 Auburn. LSU also received votes.

South Carolina coach Dave Odom, making a strong bid to upset Florida before being edged, 77-75, at Columbia, S.C., said coming off the performance against the undefeated Gators (4-0) in league play, "I think our team has improved. We're not a level where we can beat a Top 10 team like Florida, but we competed, and competing and winning are two different things. Now we go to Mississippi State, and they are Florida's equal."

All-American LaToya Thomas helped spark the Lady Dogs' win at Oxford over the weekend, reaching the 30-point plateau for the fifth time this campaign.

Thomas also had nine rebounds to go with her 30 points, making the Greenville, Miss., product the new school record holder with 943 rebounds, and surpassing the old mark of 936 held by Sharon "Shep" Thompson, another of MSU's all-time favorites.

Sophomore guard Tan White went on a rampage down the stretch and finished with a solid "double-double" with 15 points and a game-high 11 rebounds. The sophomore from Tupelo, Miss., also had four assists, and five steals. She was 6-of-6 off the line and had a big 3-pointer in the final minutes to help keep MSU in control.

Sophomore Rebecca Kates scored 10 points and drew the tough job of defending inside where she made the Lady Rebs work hard for the points they had in the paint.

Freshman Doceide Warren had eight points, six rebounds, a game-high seven assists, was 3-of-4 off the line and had two steals.

Mississippi State was 19-of-19 off the line in the second half before missing its first shot form the charity stripe in the final minute and finished 21-of-25 for the game, an impressive 84 percent.

The Bulldogs tip-off at 7 p.m. against Carolina at The Hump while the Lady Dogs jump center one night later with the same starting time.

Don Foster, a veteran newspaper writer who is the Sports Editor for the Starkville Daily News, writes a weekly article for Gene's Page.

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