For the evening to come down to a final shot, either way, made sense. There were 14 tied tallies in the game, nine lead changes, and neither side could ever get more than six points ahead. That would be the Bulldogs, with that margin in each half. And when Mississippi State forced a three-second violation by Buc Mike Smith at 0:48 with a 62-60 lead they were in position to take control.
But while MSU beat fullcourt pressure guard Ravern Johnson didn't take care of the ball with ETSU's Sheldon Cooley slapping it out from behind. Worse, after one made free throw by Justin Tubbs and a miss the rebound was knocked out to midcourt and recovered by the Bucs. A timeout later it was Williams spinning down the right side of the lane and kissing it off the glass for the go-ahead two.
"It was whoever had the best chance to get to the rim," Williams said. "Fortunately it was me. It was just about me being aggressive, it kind of opened up after the spin move I just put it up."
Things ought to have worked as well on State's end. Stansbury used timeout to set something up; not the expected outside shot but an inside play to Augustus. With center Elgin Bailey clearing out space Augustus got the bounce-feed and powered up with two Bucs hanging on him. But his shot was a little flat and hard, rolling off the far side of the iron.
"I thought I got whacked!" said Augustus, justifiably. "But they didn't call it. Definitely it's what we were looking for the play Coach Stansbury drew up. He said either get fouled or score, neither of those happened."
"It don't get no better than that," Stanbury agreed. "He got a point-blank look at the goal." Not to mention enough contact to merit a whistle that didn't come, but then the officials had let both sides play hard all evening so this was not really something State chose to complain about. In fact, Stansbury couldn't care about any non-calls at the end anyway.
"It should never have got to the last play," he said. "Don't turn it over in transition, know where you're going. Got to block out on free throws." All the things his team did not take care of in the final half-minute to prevent last-shot necessities.
Williams finished with 18 points and ETSU's biggest basket, while Smith had 20 points and four of the team's eight treys. In fact the Bucs out-shot State at their usual arc-game. Johnson led all with 23 points and had three threes but was just 3-of-13 at the arc and held to six points in the second half. Augustus added ten points and a team-best seven rebounds. The Bulldogs were not only out-shot but beaten, badly, on the backboards 35-22. It was only by making 17 free throws, to just seven for ETSU, that really let State take it down to a final shot.
The Bucs led only twice in the first half, by one point each time, and trailed 38-32 before intermission. The deficits were mostly their own fault with ten turnovers in the period offsetting superior shooting. But when Smith threw in three before the buzzer it gave Stansbury a bad feeling. This despite 17 points in the period for Johnson.
East Tennessee State made a move to open the new half with Williams going into traffic for consecutive scores and a 46-43 lead. Had the Bucs taken any advantage of a long stretch of second and even third chances with the ball via offensive rebounds things might have gotten beyond Bulldog control. Only a cold ETSU stretch delayed the disappointment, and when guard Riley Benock lobbed to Johnson for a flying dunk it seemed momentum and emotion had changed.
But Williams caught his team up and when State played a zone Smith made it hurt with a corner three. In a four-minute stretch the teams combined for only three points and a 60-60 tie, with Augustus getting to the line this time for two free shots and the last MSU points.
That was when the home team went into self-destruct mode. "Those were critical plays at the end of the game," Stansbury said. "I thought we fought and found ways to stay in the game. But you have to mentally finish them off."
Stansbury altered his starting lineup, opening with Brian Bryant at point guard and bringing Twany Beckham off the bench. But despite the need to ‘pace' some starters for the five-day/five-game stretch just beginning, he kept Johnson on the court 37 minutes and Benock 36, with Augustus playing 30. Riding his most experienced lineup was nearly enough, and it certainly helped State do a better offensive job against a full-time zone defense than in last Tuesday's 61-59 loss to Florida Atlantic.
Just not quite good enough. "And with our team, again, there's just no margin for error," Stansbury said. "One play is the difference in winning with this bunch.'
"It's a tough loss, it hurts," Augustus said. But he and team can't let the pain continue because Sunday afternoon they are right back on the court to play North Carolina A&T.
"We've got to get it out of our system," said Stansbury. "It's not just a tough loss, it's the way you lose the game. We have to flush it out the best we can and get some leadership and maturity and get ready to play at 1:00 tomorrow."