First journey to Sweet 16 ends with narrow loss for Miss. State women

By Jeff Gilbert/Special to the Journal

DAYTON, Ohio – Florida State got to answer all the big questions Mississippi State wanted to be answering on Sunday afternoon.
“How does it feel to win such an exciting game?”
“Did you think the last shot was going in?”
And the one the Lady Bulldogs most wanted to hear: “What will it take to knock off mighty Connecticut?”
Instead, the Bulldogs were left to talk about missed opportunities and their legacy as the most accomplished women’s team in school history after their 74-71 loss to Florida State in the NCAA regional semifinals. FSU will play UConn on Tuesday night for a trip to the final four.
It had to sting when Mississippi State coach Sharon Fanning-Otis was asked if she thought anybody could beat top-ranked and unbeaten UConn, owners of a 75-game winning streak.
But the sting of this loss was already being soothed when Fanning-Otis talked about her team’s character near the end of her postgame news conference.
“The biggest thing with this team that our staff says, has been to watch them grow as young ladies in their maturity and their confidence,” Fanning-Otis said.
The disappointment of losing a game in which they rarely trailed was on the faces of Fanning-Otis and seniors Alexis Rack and Chanel Mokango as they faced the media after the game. But the conversation went straight to the pride they have as the first MSU women’s team to play in the Sweet 16.
“Proud? We came a long way and we left it out on the court,” Rack said. “We played our hardest, and that’s all you can ask for.”
Rack understands the journey this team took. As a freshman and sophomore she was part of two first-round losses in the WNIT. Last year the Lady Bulldogs broke through and made it to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003. Last week, they beat second-seeded Ohio State 87-67 in the second round for the most important victory in program history.
“The legacy we want to leave is hard work and overcoming adversity,” Rack said.
Rack’s legacy will be as an All-SEC player and as the school?s third all-time leading scorer with 1,756 points. She scored 13 points in her final game, and her three 3-pointers made her the SEC career leader with 340. She entered the game with tied with LSU’s Cornelia Gayden who set the previous record of 337 in 1995. Rack’s 3-point total is 13th in NCAA history.
The task for Fanning-Otis to keep MSU on the pace it set this year will be large. Her 13-player roster has eight seniors. After the loss of Rack, the most difficult contributions to replace will be those of the three junior college transfers from Congo.
Mokango, the school’s career blocked shots leader in only two seasons, guard Armelie Lumanu and forward Rima Kalonda started Sunday and combined for 31 points and 26 rebounds.
“What Sharon has done with three players from junior college who were speaking their own language out on the court – that’s how new they are to the United States – and what she’s been able to do with that team is absolutely incredible,” Florida State coach Sue Semrau said. “We were fortunate to come away with a big win.”