The 24th-ranked East Mississippi Lady Lions couldn’t recover from a slow second-half start in dropping a 63-49 decision to unbeaten and fifth-seeded Walters State in Wednesday’s opening round of the 2009 NJCAA Division I Women’s Basketball National Championship held at the Salina Bicentennial Center.

Making their first national tournament appearance since 1978, head coach Sharon Thompson’s 12th-seeded EMCC club saw a 10-point, first-half lead evaporate over the final three minutes of the opening period. All-Region 23 sophomore forward Angelique Burtts scored on a driving basket to put East Mississippi on top, 27-17, with less than three minutes left in the half. However, a three-point play by WSCC’s Patrice Talley ignited a 9-1 run by the Lady Senators that cut the deficit to two points (28-26) by the intermission.

Entering the tournament outscoring the opposition by an average margin of +24.5 points per game on the year, third-ranked Walters State established control of the contest by scoring the first 15 points of the second stanza. This game-changing 24-1 run that began during the final minutes of the first half would put the Lady Lions on their heels for the remainder of the contest. With East Mississippi missing its first seven shots of the half and committing seven turnovers during that span, EMCC finally got back on the scoreboard when Starkville’s Sanitra Bush ended the drought with a basket at the 12:19 mark. Following a 3-pointer by WSCC’s LaKrystle Goss a minute later, the Lady Senators’ double-digit lead was never seriously challenged the rest of the game.

The Lady Lions did manage to pull to within seven points (48-41) with seven minutes remaining, but consecutive scores by Talley and Melanie Hemphill pushed Walters State’s margin back up to double figures for good. In raising their unblemished record to 31-0 on the season, 26 of the Lady Senators’ 31 wins in 2008-09 have come by 10 points or more.

Falling to 24-6 on the year, the Lady Lions were again led by Burtts, who registered her ninth double-double of the season and fourth in the last five games with 10 points and a game-high 11 rebounds on her 21st birthday. Southeast Lauderdale’s Martika Hull and Javitia Eades of Kemper County added nine and eight points, respectively, for EMCC.

Walters State’s Shy Marsh paced all scorers with 16 points, while Talley and Goss followed with 15 and 13 points, respectively, for the winners. As a team, the Lady Senators shot 53 percent (16-of-30 FGs) from the field in the second half, along with being credited with just six second-half turnovers after totaling 15 miscues through the opening 20 minutes of play.

Now competing in the loser’s bracket of the double-elimination tournament, East Mississippi takes on Sheridan College out of Wyoming Thursday at 2 p.m. in an elimination contest. The 26-9 Lady Generals, who fell to fourth-seeded Chipola College (Fla.) in Wednesday’s opening round, earned a ticket to their first NJCAA tournament since 1999 by upsetting eighth-ranked Northeastern Junior College in the championship game of the Region 9 Tournament. Guided by eighth-year head coach Frank McCarthy, Sheridan is paced by sophomore Tahnee Robinson, who entered this week’s tournament as the season’s leading scorer in NJCAA Division I women’s basketball at 29.4 points per outing.

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