Mississippi State started flat and finished flattened by Arkansas State 69-55, in what may be the toughest setback of Coach Rick Ray’s three seasons in Starkville. The Bulldogs came home hoping to forget a three-game road losing streak.
Instead State took its first home loss of this season, falling to 5-4. They did so to an Arkansas State (3-4) team whose other wins were over winless Central Arkansas and NAIA member Belhaven. Ray and squad saw the matchup as their chance to, as the coach said, “stop the bleeding”.
Nobody was wearing post-game bandages. The wounds were internal, per guard Fred Thomas. “I think this is the number-one emotional time we’ve had. We all wanted it, but we didn’t do those things to get the victory.”
“This is about as disappointing a loss as we’ve had,” Ray admitted. It came to a Red Wolves club with a ESPN RPI ranking of 333 (out of 351 teams), using ten first-year players. So for former MSU assistant John Brady any win right now is big. Getting it in the Hump where he worked from 1983-90, not to mention brought a lot of LSU teams as head coach, was just a bit sweeter.
“That’s a good win for our team. Any time you go on the road and win it’s good. To beat a SEC team on the road is a really good win for us considering where we are.”
Where the Bulldogs are after a fourth-straight loss is confused. And frustrated. Even the only positive for the night, forward Roquez Johnson, was baffled how what set-up as an excellent chance for victory was missed. Literally, since Mississippi State shot just 32% on their own floor.
“This might be the most emotional day we’ve had this year,” said Johnson, who had 20 of his team’s points. Off the bench, too. Because the senior forward out-scored a starting lineup which combined for just 15 total points. Nobody else was in double-digits; guard I.J. Ready, also in relief, had eight points and one of the three made-treys out of 17 tries.
That stat pointed to how Arkansas State was able to maul MSU so convincingly and even surprisingly. Even allowing for late-game heaves when trailing big, this was more outside shots than this team is told to attempt. But the Bulldogs left themselves little choice with inefficient ball movement and just plain inability to make jumpers short or long. Take away Johnson’s 8-of-11 evening and the rest of the roster was 13-of-54.
Meanwhile a ASU team shooting 44% on the season was better this time, 52%. So they could take 19 fewer shots and still win comfortably enough. The Bulldogs did make a few charges in the first half and even recovered from a rough start to lead 21-19 after a quarter of play.
Then Wolf guard Sean Gardner stuck one of his five treys for a lead the visitors never lost in the remaining 29 minutes. Every time State looked about to make a run, Brady’s team had an answer. “We made timely baskets and that’s not something we’ve been able to do,” he said.
Ray knew why. “Our defensive effort was really lacking, and that’s trouble,” he said. “Because that’s what we’ve got to hang our hats on. Our offensive woes are well-known.” Ray was referring to State’s shooting in the 30s percentile in their preceding three losses, something Arkansas State obviously knew well. “Let’s be honest, they’re not a good shooting team,” Brady said.
So he told his team to close off gaps for driving and let the Dogs take those long shots. ASU also sagged on center Gavin Ware, who was 1-of-5 in his 17 minutes.
The lack of court time for the starting postman reflected State’s other glaring problem. Only three minutes into the game and trailing 9-4, Ray benched the whole first five and went with substitutes. Johnson responded to his early opportunity, scoring eight points in as many minutes including the go-ahead bucket at 9:45.
“Everything wasn’t falling like it should, Arkansas State took an early lead,” Johnson said. “So I tried to provide a lot of energy and get my team on the right track.”
But Gardner’s go-ahead trey and two more buckets gave ASU a 35-27 halftime lead. He stuck another longball at 17:18 of the new period for a 10-point margin. The Bulldogs never got closer than seven again, 51-44 at 8:30 after Ready’s lone trey.
Gardner got a game-best 22 points with 5-of-10 work at the arc. Guard Cameron Golden added 15 points, center Nouhoum Boucoum 13 points with eight rebounds, and one-time MSU recruit P.J. Hardwick had seven assists. The Bulldogs had just four assists, total, and while they turned the ball over only nine times the better care-taking only led to more misses. Not enough came inside the paint which also kept State from drawing fouls.
Capping Ray’s many frustrations was his report that despite three preceding road losses he thought this week’s practices were the best so far. It didn’t carry over to the game. Now the challenge becomes not carrying more emotion than necessary into Saturday’s home-away-from-home game in Jackson with South Carolina Upstate (3:00).
“We’ve got to overcome this,” said Thomas. “We can’t let time after time, game after game effect the next game.”
The coach himself had something much more interesting to say, not so much about this game or even team but the state of State basketball. “I think the administration, everybody is invested in this program. We’ve got to start getting a return on that investment.”