HED: Lady ‘Dogs hoping last year’s momentum results in a second consecutive NCAA bid
By Parrish Alford
Twenty-one games into the 1998-99 season, Mississippi State had the look of a harmless Southeastern Conference also-ran with no threat to the league’s women’s basketball establishment.
The Lady Bulldogs drifted quietly through the season before winning five of their last six, beating Arkansas in the SEC tournament and playing Georgia — a Final Four team — to a six-point game.
In Sharon Fanning’s fourth season the Lady Bulldogs went 17-11, but more importantly, 7-7 in the SEC to finish in the top half of the league or the first time.
They earned the school’s first NCAA tournament berth and now add the top recruiting class in the program’s history to four returning starters.
“Last year was very exciting,” said senior forward Nitra Perry, a 28-game starter, who averaged 12.7 points and 6.4 rebounds. “No one expected us to do what we did, and we proved everybody wrong.”
This much is certain for the millennium’s first season: MSU won’t tip-toe through the conference again.
“That’s fine. People should expect more from us,” Perry said. “We plan to go a lot farther. We’ve got the top player in Mississippi and one of the top junior college players in the nation. We expect to finish in the top half of the SEC.”
Buoyed by the NCAA tournament game, a 76-57 loss to North Carolina State at Lubbock, Texas, Fanning reeled in Latoya Thomas of Greenville, Mississippi’s prep player of the year, another first for the MSU program.
Thomas, 6-foot-2, is expected to make immediate contributions at forward or guard.
Junior college transfer Myquita Mackey should step right in too.
The 6-2 Memphis native and former Ole Miss signee, averaged 26 points for Shelby State and led the nation in rebounding with 13 a game.
Clinton freshman Keisha Stringfellow could also earn playing time as a backcourt reserve.
State’s talent isn’t all new.
Forward Jennifer Fambrough is back for a sophomore season after leading the team in scoring (17.7) and rebounding (7.3) to earn All-SEC second team honors as a freshman.
Senior point guard Angela Harris started each game last year as she came back from knee surgery to average 7.2 points and 4.2 assists. Fanning said her play on both ends was key to State’s late-season surge.
Junior Meadow Overstreet, a 26-game starter, is back at the off guard spot.
Junior Cynthia Hall is expected to again provide quality minutes off the bench. She averaged 5.2 points and 2.2 rebounds and played in all 28 games last year.
In all, 12 players from last year’s team are back.
“Chemistry wins championships,” Fanning said. “We have a lot of people returning, but how will they embrace the new ones coming? It’s a whole new year. A lot of teams that are supposed to be something good or bad on paper don’t turn out to be either one.”
The next step for the Lady Bulldogs is learning to win on the road.
The five-game win streak last February was made possible with four straight home games to end the regular season.
State was just 1-5 in SEC road games, and this season’s schedule has four out of six February games away from Humphrey Coliseum.
“We have to be consistent in both places,” Fanning said.
Certainly so if State intends to prove last year was no fluke season.
After years of talking about the step-by-step building of a program, Fanning has some tangible results.
“When we came we knew the program was at the very bottom of the league, and there was only one way to go,” Fanning said. “So far, we’ve been able to accomplish some things.
“On paper now, we’ve got some gals coming in with some stats, but everything will depend on how well they play together. We’ve been able to attact some attention in-state, and that’s good.
“We won’t people to know Mississippi State is serious about women’s basketball.”