Now the Dogs and Hogs each have three games left to battle for a first-round SEC Tournament bye, including next Wednesday when State goes to Fayetteville. "Everything really gets magnified now, for sure," Coach Rick Stansbury said.
The magnitude of the loss stung the Dogs, certainly. "It hurts deep down inside, we were up big and in control of the game," guard Dee Bost said. "But give them credit. It's a disappointing loss, but it's not a loss like the Auburn loss." Then again it was hard to see much difference between these similar setbacks to Tiger teams sharing the SEC cellar.
LSU has nothing to play for this year, but that might have made their task a little easier this time around as Coach Trent Johnson's club played loose and fearlessly. "For us it's been a while," Johnson said. "They've been continuing to fight and hang in there, it's a great win for us. It's hard to win in here and one of the things I've always respected about Coach Stansbury is he always has his team ready to play. But I don't think we could have played better."
That was actually a painful point to State, because the Tigers really did not play terrifically well. They shot under 42%, were outrebounded 38-32, and were outscored in the paint and off turnovers. State starters accounted for 63 points, the Tiger tipoff team just 50.
"It comes down to two things," Stansbury said. "The difference is our free throws (17-of-28) and their second chance points." And, unexpected contributions from a bench that put up 34 points led by the surprising shooting of guard Aaron Dotson. Having made just four SEC treys today, he threw in three this night and finished with a team-best 16 points.
Forward Storm Warren had 14 points, guard Ralston Turner 12 including the free throw for LSU's final margin; and reserve post Garrett Green an astounding 12 points on, seeming, six putbacks out of his eight rebounds. When it seemed the Bulldogs were about to take charge late in the second half, the skinny Green somehow got to every key carom and converted unchallenged.
State center Renardo Sidney led all with his 24 points and gave State a tied tally at 1:40. He also went to the stripe a dozen times which usually means free Dog points. For whatever reason this night he was off and went 6-of-12. MSU had more chances at the foul line and failed to cash in enough, as their coach noted.
"Give LSU credit, Trent hand his kids ready to play. And they survived us coming out early and jumping on it, they got back in by jumping up and making a bunch of shots."
The opening ten minutes encapsulated the good and bad for State. With LSU in a zone Sidney and forward Kodi Augustus still scored inside, and when the Tigers sagged more Jalen Steele and Benock combined for three treys. By 12:38 it was a 24-11 lead and looking like the predicted runaway.
"When that's happened before it's been a snowball," said Johnson. "Mississippi State took some shots that didn't go down, from our standpoint we kept our composure and executed better at the offensive end."
By execution he meant his shooters just began flinging it up at the first open look, and against all stat-scouting the treys fell. "From that point on maybe we got relaxed some, lost our focus some," Stansbury said. "They come down two trips in a row and we lost (Andre) Stringer, and they kept making baskets."
So, surprisingly, did Dotson with some ugly but effective outside lofts that suddenly had LSU in front 31-30. The Tigers didn't stop there, pushing out in front 42-36 on a Storm Warren stuff that had Stansbury calling time. Still State did well to trail only 45-41 at intermission, after eight Tiger treys in the period.
After both sides started the second half badly it was LSU recovering first, easing out in front 54-45 before fouls began piling up for Tiger postmen. By 13:43 the Bulldogs were in the bonus compared to just one personal called on the home team. But failure to maximize trips to the stripe, and defensive breakdowns let LSU maintain a margin. At 9:14 Steele was fouled hard, landed badly, and left with what was later ruled a sprained ACL in the left knee.
Sidney made the free throws for his teammate, then forced a Tiger turnover that led to a Ravern Johnson trey. Bost hammered home consecutive longball of his own so by 6:00 it was down to a one-point game, and when Sidney finished a fastbreak the scoreboard was balanced 77-77.
But after another Green putback, Sidney needed two free shots to tie at 1:06 and only made one. And with LSU apparently dribbling for time State forgot to seal of the basket and Stringer got an unchallenged layup for a three-point margin. Stansbury played for the easier points and Sidney got them at 16.6 seconds with a timeout to set up coverage, or the foul. It was latter with Eddie Ludwig going to the line, making both. State's Johnson got the screen and the shot, leaving it short. Augustus rebounded for the putback at 7.3 ticks.
Then it was Turner going to the line at 5.8 for a miss and make. State had plenty of time to get down the court and set up a shot; in fact time enough for Benock to look at the three, pull it down and take a step in and fire from right in front of MSU's bench. "He shot faked and I thought it was in," Stansbury said. "I had no timeouts, so it was about as good a shot as you hoped to make in that situation."
Not quite good enough as it caught front iron and clanked awry. "I honestly thought it was going in," Benock said. Johnson probably did too given the hard LSU luck of recent weeks, but this was one night the ball bounced his way at last. "Our last five out of six we've played pretty good, but when we start struggling it snowballs. Offensively when the ball is going down it hides a multitude of sins."
Johnson had 15 points off the Bulldog bench, same as starter Bost who was just 2-of-9 shooting though. Augustus added 13 points against his home-town team. None of which mattered much after a loss that drags the Dogs back into a vulnerable Western position as they head to Tennessee for a weekend game. "It makes it a lot bigger," Bost said. "We've still got to go play Saturday. We have to let it go and go out there and play."
"It's tough for us, but we're still in control of our own destiny," said Benock. "We have a head-to-head with Arkansas, we still have our chances to secure that number two seed and that's what we've got to concentrate on."