So, now that they know…it's time to get back to work. "We set our goals high," Fanning-Otis said. "We finished third in the league, and the (SEC) tournament playing well. But we still have areas to improve. That means we need to step it up and play our best."
It's a reasonable plan given what Mississippi State (19-12) hopes to do, and what stands in their first-round way. The Blue Raiders went 25-5 this season and dominated the Sun Belt Conference with a 17-1 record. Along the way they also played three SEC teams, and while both LSU and Tennessee were winners Middle Tennessee was able to beat Kentucky 57-51. And that catches Bulldog attention, because the Wildcats not only beat State in the regular season but ended their SEC Tournament as well.
"Middle Tennessee is a very good team," Fanning-Otis said. With a very, very good player. Senior forward Alysha Clark averaged almost 29 points as the Sun Belt Player of the Year, and completely dominated the conference tournament. She began her college career at Belmont, which by coincidence appeared in Humphrey Coliseum that freshman year.
"I played against her," Bulldog senior guard Alexis Rack said. "And I'm pretty sure she's improved a lot. But I don't know much about their team." Rack's coach does know a little more though serious scouting will begin Tuesday. "Clark is a prolific scorer, you can see her numbers," Fanning-Otis said. "But as a team they work very hard."
So, the Bulldogs get back to working pretty vigorously themselves. State has had a nice break since the SEC Tournament, and by virtue of a Sunday first-round they get even more time for practicing before they head to Pittsburgh. Of course at this time of the year there is nothing really new left to install, so senior Rack said it is sticking to basic things that got State this far…and can carry them on into tournament season.
"We've been working on our defense," she said. "We're going to raise our intensity and play lock-up defense. That could make a real difference." Fanning-Otis seconds that idea. "Hopefully we'll find a way to defend an excellent player but an excellent team."
And if Mississippi State advances to next Tuesday they are quite likely to confront a familiar uniform. Player cheers when MSU's name came up on the screen were compounded as the other half of the Pittsburgh bracket popped up, with Ohio State. Bulldog veterans remember well—maybe all too well—what happened last March, when after State had knocked off Texas in the first round Ohio State won a brawl. Those memories of the opposition and officiating haven't set well with MSU since, naturally.
Fanning-Otis downplays the second round for now. And she hopes that her current team remembers something crucial about last year's victory over Texas; that it was an upset of a higher seed. The coach will use that to remind the Bulldogs that Middle Tennessee can turn the same trick.
"Hopefully that transfers over in how hard you have to play and now ready you have to be. Seedings are out the window this time of the year. It's a chance to improve on what we did last year. So you go one game at a time. We have several days of preparation right now so it's important for us to get better and go in and leave it on the line."
Rack intends to. She is one of a senior-dominated Bulldog lineup, which only makes this a more intense event because getting back to the NCAAs next year is going to be a tougher proposition. This could well be a now-or-never moment for the program, which is making a sixth NCAA appearance.
And, the last for Rack and classmates. It's the right way to go out, she said. "Especially after the first two years not making it, ending my career here at Mississippi State it feels great being in the NCAAs."