Getting ready to head down the 2002-03 homestretch, the Dogs have a "big week" ahead of them with key road dates at Auburn followed to a trip to the Bluegrass State to take on the No. 2-ranked Kentucky Wildcats, riding a 14-game winning streak.
Meanwhile, the No. 14 -ranked Mississippi State Lady Dogs (18-4, 6-4 SEC) posted a record-setting 96-46 win over Kentucky on "4-H Day" at The Hump to cap a 2-0 week. MSU defeated New Orleans, 81-69, in a mid-week contest led by three-time all-American LaToya Thomas, a national finalist for the "Senior Class Award" to be presented at the NCAA Final Four.
The Lady Dogs, closing in on a 20-win season, travel Thursday to Arkansas for a Top 25 match with the No. 15-ranked Lady 'Backs at Fayetteville before returning home Sunday to face Ole Miss at The Hump.
Tied for first place in the SEC Western Division race with surprising Auburn (17-6, 6-4), following the Plainsmen's 84-68 loss to cross-state rival Alabama Saturday at Tuscaloosa, the Bulldogs and Tigers jump center Wednesday on The Plains.
Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said despite the winner taking over undisputed possession of first place in the division that it doesn't necessarily mean that team will go on to win the SEC West.
"There's still a lot of basketball to be played," explained Stansbury. "I don't think the outcome Wednesday will determine who is going to win the SEC West, but it is a great opportunity for us to go play a very good basketball team, a team we're fighting with for first place in the division. I think we'll be ready to play."
Both teams are among the statistical leaders in the SEC with Mississippi State ranked first in three categories and second in one other, while Auburn is first in blocks and ranks second in two additional columns.
Mississippi State leads the SEC in rebounding, pulling down an average of 39.8 a game, ranks first in opponents field goal percentage (.392) and also paces the league in steals with an average of 9.29 a game.
The Bulldogs are second in the conference in opponents rebounding, limiting the opposition to an average of 30.7 rebounds per game. Auburn is second in the league in field goal percentage at .484 just a notch ahead of Mississippi State in third with a .483 mark. The Tigers are second in opponents field goal percentage at .403 just below the Dogs.
It's a surprise to many that Auburn and Mississippi State are playing for first place in the SEC West especially after the Dogs' 0-3 start that included a tough opening setback against the highly-regarded Florida Gators.
"We didn't let the slow start affect us, we just kept our heads up and kept playing," said junior all-American candidate Mario Austin, who took game-scoring honors against Ole Miss, posting a double-double with 19 points and 11 rebounds.
"We knew what we had in the locker room (after the slow start). We just wanted to keep working as a team and basically, just get win after win, and that's what has happened. We came out to defend and let the defense lead the offense (against Ole Miss). That's our main focus going into games."
Against Auburn, marking the return of Austin to his home state, the York, Ala., product said the Bulldogs will take the mentality of "playing tough defense" to The Plains.
"We're going to Auburn with first place in the SEC West on the line," said Mississippi State sophomore forward Ontario Harper, who made the last two baskets in the Dogs' thrilling win over Ole Miss Saturday night before over 10,000 wildly-celebrating fans in Starkville.
"We've stayed focused despite the slow start and now things are playing out," added Harper, credited by his coach with making a couple of "big plays" to help give the Dogs a regular season sweep of the Rebels.
"I think there were some people who started doubting us after our 0-3 start, but things happen and obviously they happen for a reason.
"But we stayed focused, worked hard in practice, stayed together and we started turning things around," added Harper of the Dogs, who've won six of their last seven SEC games.
"Going to Auburn, we want to play the same type game we played tonight and that's hard-nosed defense. Auburn's a good team but things will work out," he said.
No doubt, it took a "team effort" by the Dogs in pulling off the sweep. The Maroon and White picked up a thrilling, 58-57, decision in the first meeting at Oxford on a coast-to-coast layup by Derrick "Z" Zimmerman in the final seconds.
"Z" hit a long NBA-type 3-pointer just before the halftime buzzer to give the Dogs a 22-21 lead at the intermission in the rematch. The Monroe, La., product had 10 points and nearly as many assists with eight to go with three steals and four rebounds, a night's work in any league.
The Lady Dogs were already talking about the upcoming trip to the foot of the Ozarks for the league duel with Arkansas minutes after their record-setting, 50-point win over Kentucky.
"I know everybody is packing right now to go to Arkansas and that's an important game, but in case you don't make that trip, it's important that we have a great crowd for our last two regular season home games," said Fanning, whose team played before a record crowd for women's basketball in the state of Mississippi (6,057) against LSU earlier this month.
"We had a great vocal crowd today, but we need to break that record (LSU) before the season is over. This is a special basketball team and we have Ole Miss and Georgia coming in and there's not two better games that we could have on the schedule," added Fanning.
One of the most exciting players in the country, Mississippi State's Tan White eclipsed the 1,000 career point mark in Sunday's win over the "Big Blue" of Kentucky.
A fierce rebounder and playmaker, the soft-spoken, and oh so talented reigning "Newcomer of the Year" said she didn't know she had reached the 1,000th career point barrier.
"It's nice, but I was just glad we came out and played well," said White, who finished with 19 points while staying active on both ends of the court in the key SEC encounter. Besides blistering the nets on a near-perfect performance from the field, sinking 6-of-7 from the floor, including 2-of-2 from behind the arc, she collected eight rebounds with five assists and five steals.
"I can see Tan confident in terms of her shot selection, not rushing things. She's maturing there," said Fanning. "I'm so proud of Tan. She's maturing as a player with the ball in her hands in terms of decisions, making the easy pass, taking the easy shot, defending and being able to recover and help teammates out.
"Tan's a special young lady and works very hard and listens," added Fanning. "That's so important to learning is being a good listener. I'm very proud of her and happy because that's a great milestone in her career."
Mississippi State will be making another important journey to Arkansas next month for the 2003 Southeastern Conference Tournament being held at Little Rock's Alltel Arena (March 6-9).
Don Foster, a veteran newspaper writer who is the Sports Editor for the Starkville Daily News, writes a weekly article for Gene's Page.