Dogs face 'SEC Player of Week' duo at The Hump

[Premium article] Both the men's and women's SEC Basketball "Players of the Week" will be coming to Starkville as nationally-ranked Mississippi State plays host to the surprising Vanderbilt Commodores and the No. 3-ranked and once-beaten LSU BenGals.

Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury's No. 22-ranked Bulldogs, who have played two teams who've been ranked No. 1 in the nation at some point during the season, takes on another dangerous "Five" when "red-hot" Vanderbilt marches into town Wednesday for a 7 p.m. duel with the Dogs at "sure to be rocking" Humphrey Coliseum.

The No. 12-ranked Lady Bulldogs (16-4, 5-2 Southeastern Conference), riding the crest of a pair of big wins over Alabama (72-56) and Florida (83-54), have a couple of key upcoming tests.

Enjoying its lofty national ranking, Mississippi State has a huge challenge, traveling to Athens, Ga., for the second "Battle of the Bulldogs" in less than a week when the Lady Dogs call on Andy Landers' No. 17-ranked Georgians (14-5, 5-1) Thursday at Stegeman Coliseum.

Following their trek to Athens, where the MSU men dropped a tough 67-63 decision Saturday, the Lady Bulldogs will return home to the delight of "Fanning's Fanatics" and hopefully a full house at The Hump for the annual "Take a Kid to the Game" Sunday afternoon against LSU and SEC Women's Basketball "Player of the Week" freshman Seimone Augustus.

But before the weekend showdown between the Lady Dogs, holding tightly to the No. 4 slot in the SEC standings, and the BenGals (18-1, 6-1 SEC), runner-up to Tennessee (18-3, 7-0), their counterparts, the MSU Bulldogs, host Vanderbilt (10-8, 3-4) and SEC Men's Basketball "Player of the Week" forward Matt Freije, who ranks fourth in the league in scoring with a 17.7 average.

"Vanderbilt is coming off a great week," acknowledged Stansbury during Monday's SEC Basketball Teleconference.

"They've had two great wins against Georgia (94-91) and Ole Miss (76-68)," added Stansbury, whose team has already faced current No. 1 ranked Florida and earlier Alabama, formerly the top-ranked team in the country.

"They've (Vanderbilt) been in every road game they've played. Like any other game, we're going against a very good Vanderbilt team," noted Stansbury.

Freije, a 6-9 junior from Shawnee Mission, Kan., began last week with a career-high 31 points as Vandy upset Georgia at Memorial Gym in Nashville.

Finishing 12th in the league in scoring with a 15.1 average and seventh in free throw percentage (.768) last year, Freije had a number of key baskets against Ole Miss, a team the Bulldogs put away, 58-57, on a last-second driving layup by Derrick Zimmerman before completing their two-game road swing with a disappointing loss at Georgia.

"We just didn't finish it," said Stansbury after MSU failed to hang onto a five-point lead in the final three minutes while becoming the victim of three long-range "3's" by Ezra Williams down the stretch.

"It's an "L" in a game we had a chance to win on the road against a great ball club," he said.

The Bulldogs have to put the tough road loss behind them with Kevin Stallings' upset-minded Commodores sailing into Starkville on a hot streak.

The two teams are matched fairly close in several statistical categories.

MSU ranks sixth in the SEC in scoring with an even 73 ppg average followed by Vandy at No. 7 with a 71.9 average. The Dogs are fourth in field goal percentage with a .479 average while the Commodores stand No. 8 in the league with a .468 percentage.

Mississippi State is first in the SEC in two categories - rebounds (39.9 rpg) and steals (9.22 spg), while Vandy is fifth in steals (8.39 spg) and 10th in rebounding (33.6).

Needing a win to stay on the heels of SEC West-leading Auburn, along with a couple of other division teams, the Dogs will have 6-9 junior Mario Austin, on the Midseason Top 30 list of candidates for this year's prestigious John Wooden Award, in the starting lineup joined by junior guard Timmy Bowers, forwards Michal Ignerski and Ontario Harper and point guard Zimmerman, one of the SEC leaders in assists and steals.

Meanwhile, Sharon Fanning's Lady Bulldogs prepare for Georgia and LSU.

"This league is tough. You get into January and all the young kids realize how tough it is," said Fanning as MSU began preparations for two of its biggest games of the campaign.

Not knowing what to expect in the "Sunshine State" from a talented, but young Florida team, except a hard fought road contest, which is the norm in the rugged SEC, Mississippi State came away with a solid, 83-54, win Sunday over the Gators at the O'Connell Center.

Needing a win to maintain its perch among the top four teams in the conference, Mississippi State won its fifth league game in its last six tries with a strong finish at Gainesville.

The Lady Bulldogs broke open a close game with an explosive 40-10 second half run sparked by a couple of "3's" by sophomore Tan White to seal the road decision, their third straight victory over the Gators.

Three-time all-American LaToya Thomas paced four MSU players in double figures with 22 points and had a game-high 13 rebounds, while sophomore Rebecca Cates tied a career-high with a 19-point effort, drilling 8-of-11 from the floor, including three "3's".

Freshman guard Blessing Chekwa sizzled from the field as well, connecting on 8-of-12 for 17 points, matched by White, who added a game-high seven assists with nine rebounds with one lone turnover.

Fanning said the second half scoring spree started with a lot of energy on both ends of the court.

"Tan (White) hit a couple of threes and the intensity from a defensive standpoint also picked up," said Fanning.

Cates chipped in with a couple of key baskets during MSU's big second half run joined by Chekwa with eight of her 17 points.

Mississippi State picked up a game on Georgia following the Peach State Lady Dogs' 68-64 loss Sunday at LSU.

Long an advocate of take 'em one game at a time, Fanning said if our fans can make it to Athens, good, if not, come out and support our team against LSU.

"It's "Take a Kid to the Game" so come out and help us as we play a very good LSU team," added Fanning.

Freshman guard Doceide Warren, who joined the team after attending a family funeral in Dallas, Tex., scored six points and also helped the Lady Dogs on the boards with seven recoveries. She also had six assists.

Mississippi State outrebounded the larger Gators 46-40 led by Thomas (13), White and Warren. The Lady Dogs had only 11 turnovers, with only three coming in the second half, a tribute to senior point guard Renea Jones, White, Chekwa and Warren while handling the ball in transition and running the offense.

Freshman Mamie McKinney, getting more and more "PT" for the Lady Dogs, had three of MSU's 15 steals. White came up with four, Chekwa three and Kates two.

The Lady Dogs, winners of eight of their last nine outings, had 40 points in the paint while also utilizing Seneca Anderson, Keisha Stringfellow, Tiffany Burton, Jessica Carter and Faithe McGhee.

"This was a huge step for us," added Fanning. "This was a team win. But we can't become complacent and we have to continue to work to become more consistent."

Mississippi State's home game against LSU with an assist from Zeta Tau Alpha is being billed as "Pack The Hump" at Humphrey Coliseum for the key SEC engagement.

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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