The larger picture for both teams though was getting the conference campaign underway well, especially in what is expected to be another year where holding home-serve matters most in the Western Division. Stealing one on the road was big for Alabama. Losing in Humphrey Coliseum means Mississippi State is already a long step behind already. Especially as Coach Rick Stansbury's team wanted to put a 1-4 holiday road trip behind them to open their ‘new' season. Instead…
"We've been digging for a while so we're used to digging," shrugged Stansbury. "And we have to find ways to keep getting better, and hope at some point this season catches up to what I believe it's capable of doing."
The problem was that with Sidney finally activated for conference play, as well as joined by veteran all-SEC guard Dee Bost fresh from a semester's suspension, the Bulldogs were supposed to be automatically better for this game. They weren't. Even allowing for layoffs and lack of game-shape by both, the dual debut didn't live up to billing. Bost did lead his team with 14 points and five assists, even stealing balls twice.
But he was also 5-of-16 shooting, 1-of-6 at the arc, and missed his first five free throws. "It just wasn't there," he admitted, saying despite the long layoff his legs were somehow lacking. "But I should have knocked them down like any other game."
After missing a year-and-a-half of college ball Sidney's frustrations were a little more understandable, as he was 1-of-8 from the field in 26 minutes. For a half Sidney actually impacted play defensively, a literal roadblock around the rim to Green and forward Tony Mitchell and perhaps the only reason State was down just 27-26 at the break.
He inevitably tired though, and even when on the court in the last half Alabama found ways to work around him. Or more accurately, work Green in front of him for easier looks. Once he began popping from around the foul line State suddenly turned hapless everywhere else defensively.
"He hit some jumpers," Stansbury said. "We missed around the hole and he hit some jumpers. He's an OK shooter, I don't know if he's a guy they want consistently shooting jumpshots." Maybe not but as long as it worked UA Coach Anthony Grant was content with this revised gameplan. Especially as it freed guards Trevor Releford and Charvez Davis to score 17 and 13 points themselves, too many of these without a Dog defender in reach.
It was nothing fancy either, said forward Kodi Augustus. "Just pick-and-roll, running their offense." Augustus was a brighter Bulldog spot with his seventh double-double of the year, 11 points and 11 rebounds each. Backup center Wendell Lewis came in for ten points and five boards…but the soph's efforts off the bench only amplified what Sidney ought to have been providing as the starter.
"Shug (Sidney) just the second half couldn't finish a play," Stansbury said. "And we went to him over and over and over." State certainly went to the big guy early on, and had no baskets to show for it until just before halftime. Sidney did display a nice passing touch off the baseline, though often teammates weren't ready for his no-look bullets.
It wasn't a sterling start for either side with combined for 3-of-14 shooting and a 6-3 Alabama lead at the first media break as the zone kept State off-stride. The Dogs got a brief lead on Augustus free shots only to have Davis take, and make, the first Tide trey. Mitchell scored consecutive buckets before UA's Steele got inside for a 15-7 lead and Stansbury timeout at 12:07.
Had not Alabama gone on a stretch of five failed series, three with turnovers, this would have gotten entirely out of control sooner. The Dogs did not take advantage in this dry spell, and at 8:40 Steele scored and was fouled for an 18-9 difference. Finally sub-center Wendell Lewis scored a putback and Bost made a break. When Ravern Johnson finally got a three to fall, at 6:50 a comeback was underway. It helped that Alabama slipped into playing more at State's tempo and not their patient pace.
State's Jalen Steele surprised the Tide with consecutive baseline buckets for a tied tally; then Sidney's first SEC bucket evened it up again. He missed for the lead, as did Bost, and a free throw made Alabama's 27-26 halftime margin.
Yet to Stansbury "Even though we were behind, as horrible as we played, I felt we'd won the game," he said. "I didn't think we could play any worse, but I found out the second half we could." The MSU coach ought to have credited Alabama for playing better, too, as well as taking advantage of obvious outside shooting ills to go from their first-half zone defense to straight man the rest of the way.
The lead flipped four times to begin the new period, including on a Bost trey for a 31-29 MSU advantage. Alabama got it back on buckets in traffic by Davis and Releford, and stayed a series in-front until Green returned to court at 13:25 after a break. He stuck one short jumper and powered for another, which freed Senario Hillman to get loose for two scores of his own. After a Sidney travel it was Green again for a 49-37 lead and Bulldog timeout at 9:55. After which another MSU turnover and utterly unguarded Chris Hines layup a deeper hole.
"JaMychal Green started knocking down jumpshots, we couldn't get into our offense, and it started going downhill for us," said Bost.
Tempers flared in the MSU lane between Sidney and Green with the pair separated. But it was Alabama getting rung-up after Johnson missed a trey and Hines was called for a foul on Augustus. His protest earned the T, only to have Augustus miss three of four free shots. Green made it hurt more with yet another out-front jumper, though he did clank an uncontested dunk chance the next time down. Sidney would watch the last eight minutes.
State did get within a dozen on a Johnson three and Bost steal-and-score, but at the other end couldn't stop easy Alabama buckets from, well, most anyone that got near the goal. Releford's driving layup and foul made it 64-46 at four minutes remaining, and for further embarrassment Green got an uncontested putback of a teammate's missed free throw.
"I don't know, it seems they got to all the loose balls and made all the plays, got to the free throw line a lot," said Augustus. State got their more but was 10-of-20 compared to 10-of-16 for the Tide. And while Alabama only made one trey (Davis) they attempted just eight, making the most of smart attacks right at the rim. The Bulldogs of course tossed up treys, 24 of them, with five makes.
"Nah, we don't want to shoot that many," Stansbury said. "We've got to finish more in that post. They zoned first half and made us shoot some threes, second half they manned us. We got behind and started shooting threes." State's Johnson, the leading SEC scorer at 20.1 points in pre-league play, was 2-of-10 at the arc and had just eight points in the conference tipoff.
"He never really got it going consistently, kind of like everybody else," Stansbury said. "Early in the game you could tell he was uptight, missing shots."
Why exactly the home team would be uptight for a game they figured would begin the best part of their season, and with the two key pieces finally in places, went unanswered. Or maybe it was trying to fit everyone in instantly that caused part of the problem. Either way, "We were just trying to flow into something, trying to get some rhythm on offense and defense," said Augustus.
"We were just stagnant," said Bost. "We didn't have any movement."
The schedule keeps moving though and Mississippi State next has to take this uncertain act on the road for a Thursday night game with Ole Miss. Winning one on the road might not entirely balance the books after a home loss, but it would certainly settle some early-season club concerns.
"Of course it's frustrating because we lost," Bost said. "But it's finally here and the season continues, it doesn't stop with one loss. Now if we let this loss carry over then it will be a long season. We'll keep our heads up and get the next one and keep pushing."