Lady Bulldogs tip off NCAA tourney play today

By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal

The Congo trio is geared up for a last hurrah.
Mississippi State’s imports – Armelie Lumanu, Chanel Mokango and Rima Kalonda – have been together for years. Chances are, they’ll go their separate ways once this school year ends, but first they will try to lead the Lady Bulldogs deep into the NCAA tournament.
MSU (19-12), a No. 7 seed in the Dayton Regional, opens play today against 10th-seeded Middle Tennessee State (25-5) in Pittsburgh.
The three seniors came to Starkville last season after two years together at Southeastern Illinois College.
Lumanu and Mokango, both starters, have known each other about a decade now, and they both met Kalonda at age 16 when playing for the Congolese national team.
Coming to the United States, while providing them with a chance to shine on the basketball floor, has always been about more than hoops.
“What they’re excited about, too, is getting their degrees,” MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said. “So it’s a combination there, the education as well as the basketball opportunity. And that’s what makes them special, is the commitment that they’ve made, the sacrifice that they’ve made.”
And it’s been quite a sacrifice for the trio, having to learn a new language – French is their native tongue – and being far away from family. But being together helps, as do their teammates.
“Sometimes I get sad, I call them, (or) I call my family,” Mokango said.
Perhaps a professional career awaits the three, but right now the focus is on the Big Dance. MSU reached the second round last season, losing to Ohio State. A win over MTSU today could give the Lady Bulldogs another shot at the Buckeyes.
First, Fanning-Otis must figure out a way to solve one of the nation’s most prolific offenses, which is led by the nation’s most prolific scorer, 5-foot-10 senior forward Alysha Clark. She averages 28.7 points per game, and the Blue Raiders rank third in the country with 81.4 points per game.
“I don’t think that any one person has really guarded her,” Fanning-Otis said. “Because you look at stats against various teams, and we have several common opponents, but she’s just hard to guard.”
One of those common opponents is Tennessee. The Lady Vols beat Middle Tennessee this year, 69-52, but Clark scored 23 points on 8 of 17 shooting.
“I know when we played them, it took us a while to do what we needed to do and to defend the way we needed to defend,” UT coach Pat Summitt said. “People that haven’t played them beforehand, it’s a team that can really be very, very successful.”
MSU will counter with the Congo girls as well as point guard Alexis Rack, who’s trying to shake off some recent offensive woes. Over her last nine games, the senior is averaging just 9.7 points while shooting 22.9 percent from the field.
For the season, she’s averaging 17.1 points per game.

Sharp shooters
Fanning-Otis has said she believes Rack will be fine. Her greater concern is defense, because aside from Clark, MTSU has a bevy of outside marksmen. Three Blue Raiders shoot better than 37 percent from 3-point range.
“They do a good job of moving the basketball,” Fanning-Otis said. “It’s a team that you’re going to have to guard really hard, and we always talk about pressure on the ball, and that’s going to be important.”
Said Mokango, “We have to be tough and just play the game, get ready. Because they’re a good team.”

Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or brad.locke@djournal.com.