By Paul Jones/Special to the Journal
STARKVILLE – Playing without leading scorer Alexis Rack, Mississippi State appeared to be in trouble Sunday afternoon against rival Ole Miss.
But in front of 2,134 fans at Humphrey Coliseum, the Lady Bulldogs proved they are more than a one-player show.
Behind a solid defensive effort and balanced scoring attack, MSU (17-9, 8-5 in the SEC) breezed past the Lady Rebels, 73-54, in a crucial meeting for two teams trying to pad their NCAA Tournament resumes.
“We had to keep our heads up and not pay attention to the loss of Alexis,” said MSU coach Sharron Fanning-Otis. “We helped ourselves in a big way and our players came off the bench, and stayed poised, which gave us a lot of help.”
Armelie Lumanu led the Lady Bulldogs with 18 points, nine boards and six assists while Mary Kathryn Govero added 15 points. Tysheka Grimes also chipped in 14 points for the Lady Bulldogs, who held Ole Miss to 35.7 percent shooting and won the battle of the boards 39-35.
Rack suffered a foot injury late in the Lady Bulldogs’ victory Thursday at South Carolina. While her teammates discovered Saturday they would play without her 19-point average, their mindset was to remain confident in the rest of the team’s abilities.
“We were focused for this game,” said Grimes. “We were positive even though Alexis was hurt. We worked as a team and it showed in how we played.”
Ole Miss (15-10, 6-6) entered Sunday’s as the league’s best shooting team at 43 percent. But the Lady Rebels missed 15 of their first 19 shots and shot just 29 percent in the opening half. Ole Miss trailed 34-22 at halftime but failed to cut the deficit under double digits in the second half.
“They were the better team today,” said Ole Miss coach Renee Ladner. “We allowed the offensive end of the floor to affect us on defense. Mississippi State played really well on both ends of the floor and we struggled.”
Bianca Thomas, the SEC’s leading scorer, had 17 points for the Lady Rebels but was just 2-of-13 beyond the arc. As a team, Ole Miss connected on just 6-of-30 from three-point territory.
Tough road ahead?
With four conference games left on the schedule, Ladner stated the obvious on her team’s chances for the NCAA tournament. Ole Miss has road games at Arkansas and Tennessee sandwiched around home tilts with Vanderbilt and Auburn.
“We have to find a way to win three out of four games,” said Ladner. “And that is probably a tall order. If we are lucky, we can get away with winning two games and make the tournament. But we just have to reload and regroup in a hurry.”
Meanwhile, the Lady Bulldogs clinched at least a winning mark for the season in the SEC.
MSU does not return to action until Sunday, which should help in Rack’s recovery.
“This late in the schedule makes it a whole new season and you have to keep your focus,” said Fanning-Otis. “We will have to be tough both on the road and at home.
“We are blessed to have Thursday off because of Alexis’ injury, which will give her time to rest, come back and help us finish strong.”