By Miss. State Media Relations
DULUTH, Ga. – Mississippi State’s run through the Southeastern Conference Tournament came to an end Saturday night as the Lady Bulldogs dropped a 76-65 decision to Kentucky in The Arena at Gwinnett Center.
Third-seeded MSU saw a 14-point second half lead get away against the second-seeded and 18th-ranked Lady Wildcats. UK now meets top-seeded Tennessee in a 5:30 p.m. CT tip Sunday night for the conference title.
For Mississippi State, conference play concludes with a 19-12 overall record. It is the sixth time in program history that the squad has garnered 19 or more overall wins. The Lady Bulldogs also earned its highest-ever seed in the conference event while advancing to the semifinal round for only the third time ever.
Now, MSU awaits its NCAA Tournament fate. The Lady Bulldogs appear poised to make a return trip to that event after advancing to the second round a year ago. Selections for the women’s tournament will be announced on ESPN on Monday, March 14.
Saturday night’s game swung on a 17-6 UK run in the early stages of the second half. The teams were tied at 17 before the Lady Bulldogs pieced together a 9-0 run down the back stretch of the first half. UK went more than three minutes without scoring and close to four minutes without a field goal.
“I feel like our team was ready to play,” MSU head coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said. “We had some early turnovers but then I thought we adjusted and started to attack. You hope that success (in the quarterfinals) breeds success. However, when you are playing a team like Kentucky, they will keep playing. You can lose your focus.”
The Lady Bulldogs continued that balanced attack throughout the first half, mixing the outside play of Armelie Lumanu with the inside play of Chanel Mokango. Tysheka Grimes also had some critical rebounds and baskets as well.
MSU carried that momentum and a 35-24 lead into the locker room at halftime.
A 3-point play by Lumanu and jumper by Mokango ran the Lady Bulldogs out to a 40-26 advantage with 18:52 left in the contest. Unfortunately, the Lady Bulldogs followed that up with five turnovers and a couple of missed layups during the 17-6 run.
UK closed within 44-42 on a pair of Amber Smith free throws with 13:56 remaining.
Kentucky eventually forced the tie when Amani Franklin hit a layup for a 53-all tie with 10:20 remaining. The Lady Bulldogs had one final lead before UK eased into control with a 7-0 run. A 3-pointer by A’dia Mathies capped that run and made the score 69-59 with 4:20 remaining.
“Our defensive intensity has to be as tough when you are in foul trouble,” Fanning-Otis said. “Our lack of focus and their continuing to play hard kicked us late. You have to be mentally tough to win games like this.”
For the contest, the Lady Bulldogs hit 25 of 52 shots from the field (48.1 percent), 4 of 13 shots from 3-point range (30.8 percent) and 11 of 19 shots from the foul line (57.9 percent). The Lady Wildcats hit 25 of 61 shots from the field (41.0 percent), 5 of 15 shots from 3-point range (33.3 percent) and 21 of 31 shots from the foul line (67.7 percent).
UK held a 40-34 rebounding advantage. The Lady Bulldogs had 14 assists and 28 turnovers, while the Lady Wildcats had 14 assists and 18 turnovers. UK managed an amazing 13 steals in the contest.
Grimes paced the Lady Bulldogs with 19 points. Also in double figures were Lumanu with 18 points and Mokango with 13 points. Alexis Rack battled through foul trouble, talking only eight shots and finishing with four points.
Mathies finished with 25 points for UK. Victoria Dunlap added 22 points, while Amber Smith scored 14 points. Dunlap also finished with a team-high nine rebounds.