PITTSBURGH (AP) — Down nine points with less than five minutes remaining against one of the nation's best offensive teams, Mississippi State knew from experience what would save its season.
The same kind of clampdown defense that an NCAA tournament opponent applied on the Bulldogs to end their season a year ago.
Alexis Rack and Chanel Mokango led a frantic rally at both ends of the court and the Bulldogs surged back for a 68-64 victory over Middle Tennessee State and national scoring leader Alysha Clark in an NCAA Dayton regional first-round game Sunday.
The seventh-seeded Bulldogs (20-12), who trailed by 15 points in the first half, held Clark and the Blue Raiders scoreless over the final 4:39. It was a reversal of the Bulldogs' 68-64 second-round loss to Ohio State last year, when the Buckeyes trailed 58-54 before holding Mississippi State without a point during the final 6:43 of a 68-64 victory.
Now, conveniently enough, Ohio State and Mississippi State meet again Tuesday in another second-round game. The second-seeded Buckeyes (31-4) beat St. Francis, Pa., 93-59 earlier Sunday.
"We're pleased we made a stand and found a way to win," Mississippi State coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said. "You have to play with confidence and expectations."
Especially on defense.
Mokango not only scored 20 points, 16 in the second half, but she had 14 rebounds and two blocked shots while helping to limit Clark — who has been unstoppable for weeks — to 17 points. Clark averaged 44 points in three Sun Belt Conference victories and had been held below 30 only once in 10 games while raising her average to 28.7.
"I haven't seen anybody guard her one-on-one," Fanning-Otis said.
At least until now.
"She's played against big kids like that all year long," Blue Raiders coach Rick Insell said of the 5-10 Clark, who often posts up low on the blocks. "I've seen her do some extraordinary things. But it was pretty aggressive (defense)."
At one point, Mokango told Fanning-Otis, "Coach, I'm trying, I'm trying. ... It's the best defense we've ever played."
"Her wingspan makes it tough to shoot over," a teary-eyed Clark said of the 6-foot-5 Mokango. "We let up on defense and we weren't getting shots."
Rack and Mokango teamed for all but six of Mississippi State's 40 points in the second half as the Bulldogs came back from deficits of 26-11 in the first half and 58-48 with 7:48 remaining. Rack scored 21 points after missing all four of her shots in the first half, including 10 of the Bulldogs' last 14 points.
"We put the ball in her hands," Fanning-Otis said. "I believe in this team and I believe in her."
The Blue Raiders (25-6), a Sun Belt Conference team on the verge of beating a BCS school, led 64-55 on Anne Marie Lanning's 3-pointer, but the Bulldogs had one more surge — and a decisive one — left in them. And Middle Tennessee State couldn't squeeze out one more point, even on a day when it went 12 of 36 from 3-point range.
"We knew it was now or never," Rack said. "We turned it up."
Rack's 3-pointer ahead of Armelie Lumanu's layup made it 64-60, and Rack followed by scoring on successive possessions to tie it. The Bulldogs gained their first lead at 66-64 on Armelie Lumanu's jumper with 37 seconds remaining that was created by Diamber Johnson's steal. Lumanu added 12 points.
After the officials didn't call an apparent traveling violation that occurred when two Mississippi State players collided, Lumanu sealed it by hitting two free throws after Clark fouled out with four seconds remaining.
Brandi Brown scored 14 and Chelsia Lymon, Jackie Pickel and Lanning had 11 each for the Blue Raiders, who were one-point losers to Michigan State in the first round last year.
Middle Tennessee couldn't have asked for a much better start, opening leads of 13-5 and 26-11 even while making only 5 of 25 from 3-point range, only to have Clark draw her third foul with 4:10 remaining. The Lady Bulldogs went on a half-ending 13-3 run to get to within 30-28 at halftime.