By DANNY P. SMITH
The Mississippi State Lady Bulldogs have taken a post-Christmas trip to the town of Bethlehem.
No, the Lady Bulldogs are not visiting the Holy Land and the birthplace of Jesus. They are in Bethlehem, Pa., to participate in the Christmas City Classic.
After Mississippi State (7-3) plays Buffalo today at 4 p.m., it takes on either Rider or host Lehigh at a time to be determined Thursday.
It's the final non-conference action for the Lady Bulldogs before playing the first Southeastern Conference game at Vanderbilt on Jan. 6, 2011.
MSU women's coach Sharon Fanning-Otis put her team through two days of practice in Starkville before leaving for the tournament. She knows her squad has some improving to do in certain areas as the league schedule looms.
"We have to get smarter and we have to play a lot harder together," Fanning-Otis said. "Toughness is going to be important. That word will define us as the season progresses.
"We have to be communicators and harder workers together. The harder you play the more confidence you are going to have and the better your expectations. If you can be tough enough to play hard, you can find a way to win some ballgames. That's what our challenge is and hopefully we'll do that."
The Lady Bulldogs suffered a tough 61-36 loss at Xavier on Dec. 17 before returning home to knock off Mississippi Valley State 61-49, a result that Fanning-Otis wasn't entirely pleased with and let her team know it following the game.
After MSU made a run all of the way to the NCAA Sweet 16 last season, Fanning-Otis wants her players to remember what it took to get there.
"If you prepare hard enough, it's tough for somebody to take something from you," Fanning-Otis said. "It means too much to you. We have to be more consistent in our work ethic."
The Lady Bulldogs know where they stand and look to make the adjustments necessary to have success over the next two months.
"We're working on being more consistent in what we do," MSU junior guard Diamber Johnson said. "We've got to have the high energy for 40 minutes and that's something we're working on. Not everyone is in shape so we have those downfalls so we've got to learn how not to make those mistakes when we are tired. We're not where we need to be, but we're better now than where we were."
Johnson leads the Lady Bulldogs in scoring at 12.5 points per game, while senior guard Mary Kathryn Govero isn't far behind at 12.2 points per outing. junior forward Ashley Brown leads the team in rebounding with 10.4 boards per game.
The anticipated starting guards for MSU will be Johnson, Govero and Brown with junior Porsha Porter playing the other guard spot and junior Catina Bett getting the nod at center.
Bett has started three of the four games she's been eligible to play in and Govero said the Lady Bulldogs have had to get used to new faces in new places.
"We started off one way and we gained a couple of new players so it's changed the dynamics of things," Govero said. "It's definitely still a learning process. We've made some progress in some areas and I think we've regressed in some areas. We've just got to come back from the break ready to work, go to that tournament, have a good showing in that and take the momentum into the SEC."