n MSU’s women can burnish their tournament resume with a strong effort this week.
By Parrish Alford
Mississippi State has won more games than it has in the last six years and finished plus-.500 in the SEC for the regular season.
MSU coach Sharon Fanning hopes that’s enough – she thinks it ought to be – to get her team into the NCAA tournament.
If that isn’t enough, the Lady Bulldogs still have time to do something about it. They open SEC tournament play tonight at 9 in the final game of first-day action at Alltell Arena in North Little Rock. Sixth-seeded MSU takes on 11th-seeded South Carolina, a team it defeated by 17 points on Jan. 26.
Ole Miss christens the 2009 tournament at noon with what will amount to a home game for Arkansas.
MSU enters the SEC tournament with an RPI of 44. The Lady Bulldogs are 3-6 against RPI top 50 teams, and six of their eight losses have come against RPI top 20 teams.
“As I watch teams compete nationally, I feel like we deserve a spot in the NCAA tournament,” Fanning said. “We’ve played close in some losses, we’ve beaten some teams that are ahead of us. You never know how things are going to go with upsets in other leagues. We have to take care of business right now, and we’re certainly not looking past our first basketball game.”
The Lady Bulldogs won six of their last 10 games, including a sweep of third-seeded LSU, which they will face if they get past the Gamecocks.
Led by junior point guard Alexis Rack’s 14.8 points a game, State has benefited from balanced scoring and defense for most of this season.
The Lady Bulldogs finished as the SEC’s top shot-blocking team and ranked second in scoring defense, field goal defense and steals.
In a conference tournament considered wide open – unlike the event’s recent history – MSU could be a dark horse.
“We’ve gone through a phase of adjustment with several players moving in and out for various reasons. Hopefully we can get settled,” Fanning said. “Balance has been a reason we’ve been successful, and hopeful we can carry that over this week.”
Ole Miss played itself out of the NCAA tournament discussion in February by losing four of its last five, a swoon initiated by the Lady Bulldogs when they won convincingly 66-50 in Oxford on Feb. 12.
Junior guard Bianca Thomas leads the Rebels with 15.3 points a game, but Thomas, one of the SEC’s top 3-point shooters, was frustrated in Sunday’s 59-48 loss to LSU when Lady Tigers guard Allison Hightower allowed her only one 3-point attempt.
“I would love to say we’re going into the tournament full of confidence, but I don’t think that would be true,” Ole Miss coach Renee Ladner said. “We’ve been a team that you don’t really know what you’re going to get on any given night.”
One of the nights in question was Feb. 19 at Alabama, a 67-59 defeat the resulted in Alabama’s lone conference win.
Ladner said the Rebels took the loss “personal” and responded by beating No. 19 Vanderbilt the next time on the floor.
“We’ve not played up to what I expect, but I know this is a new day, and if we can put four days together we have a shot at winning,” Ladner said. “We go in with those thoughts.”