Struggling teams meet in Starkville today

By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal

STARKVILLE – Two teams stumbling toward season’s end will bump into each other again today.
Ole Miss visits Mississippi State for a 2:30 p.m. tipoff at Humphrey Coliseum. Both squads come skidding into this game – the Lady Rebels (12-13, 2-10 SEC) have lost seven in a row, the Lady Bulldogs (13-11, 3-8) five in a row.
MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis is trying to put a positive spin on the recent struggles. After a 10-point loss at Georgia, State’s last two games have been decided by a total of 10 points.
“I feel like we’re getting better, and I feel like we’re playing with more energy for a 40-minute period,” Fanning-Otis said. “It seems that we’re understanding the little things about the games, and not just the system, not just a play that you’re running, but just how you play the game. How you read and react with each other, those things are really important.”
Fanning-Otis stressed the need for better ball care, rebounding and shot selection. During this five-game skid, MSU is shooting 34.3 percent from the field, is minus-13 in rebound margin, and minus-12 in turnover margin.
On the plus side, senior point guard Diamber Johnson, from Pontotoc, has snapped out of a mini-slump in which she scored just six points in two games. She’s averaging 15.3 points over the last three games, and 16.3 for the season.
For a team that averages 59.2 points per game – tied for last in the SEC – Johnson is the biggest offensive force. This kind of season is a tough way for her to go out, but Fanning-Otis said Johnson is trying to lead this team out of the dark.
“She’s trying to step up and do the things that we’re asking her to do and stay focused on the next game and be prepared for the next game,” Fanning-Otis said. “That’s what you want a player to do, so I expect her to do that on Sunday.”
MSU won the first meeting with Ole Miss, 51-46, and that’s marked the beginning of this current slide for the Lady Rebels. Making it worse of late has been the absence of 6-foot-4 senior forward Nikki Byrd, who’s second on the team in scoring (12.6 ppg) and second in the league in rebounding (9.1).
She missed two games with an injury, then logged six minutes in Thursday’s 52-47 loss to Alabama. Coach Renee Ladner is hopeful Byrd can give more today.
“We’re not very big without Nikki in. We get beat up a lot, our young kids get pushed around a lot,” Ladner said.
Those young kids, Ladner added, have lost some confidence during this losing streak. She said she didn’t like the way the team kept waiting for point guard Valencia McFarland (13.2 ppg) to make something happen the first half against Alabama. The second-half effort was better, and that’s what Ladner is looking for in both halves today.
“It’s the SEC. It’s what it is, and it’s a grind,” she said. “I’m tired of talking about it, I just want players to step up to the plate, do the best they can under the conditions. I can live with a loss if we’re fighting.”
Contributing: Patrick Ochs.