No, the Bulldogs did not. When I.J. Ready’s pushed shot caught more glass than iron and the horn sounded, Mississippi State had lost for a fifth-straight game. This time it was to South Carolina-Upstate, by a 53-51 final at the Mississippi Coliseum.
Mississippi State’s skid continued with a 5-5 record now, while Upstate went home 9-4 with another win over a power-five conference club. Not that the Bulldogs felt very powerful under their continuing, frustrating circumstances.
“That game right there, obviously it hurt and it hurt our guys,” Coach Rick Ray said.
All the more because inside two minutes of the game the Bulldogs had a one-point lead. And with 17.7 left it was a 51-51 tie after center Fallou Ndoye dunked a Johnson miss. But hopes of snapping the streak were themselves snapped as Spartan guard Ty Green stuck a 16-footer at 6.3 ticks.
The Bulldogs still had time to make something happen. But inbounding on the far end, Ready was forced to catch Johnson’s inbounds pass at the free throw line and change direction. That might have coaxed the point guard into rushing his shot charging past the key, and if it hadn’t missed a travelling call could have been whistled anyway.
But with an offense charitably described as struggling, setting anything up would have been just as problematic. To their credit the Dogs did play perhaps their best backcourt defense of the season, and Upstate was only 4-of-25 themselves on three-point play. But when the Spartans got the ball closer to the goal, they were 17-of-27 on two-pointers. This despite getting crushed on the glass by a 39-23 margin.
So rebounding was in favor of State and the long-range defense was sound. What went wrong? The Bulldogs shot 38.6% against the Atlantic Sun Conference guest, poor enough overall. But the 1-of-15 work at the arc was awful even by this team’s low perimeter standards.
”I’m very disappointed,” said Johnson, again a rare Bulldog bright spot with his team-bests 15 points and nine rebounds. “I’m pretty sure all the other guys are. We had so much energy, guys on the bench were celebrating.”
And, per Ray, following the script designed against Upstate. “Our guys made a concerted effort to do the things the coaching staff wanted.” Something else the staff wanted was to shake-up the lineup after Wednesday’s dismal effort at home against Arkansas State. Junior center Gavin Ware was replaced by Ndoye and Johnson took the starting forward job of Travis Daniels.
On the defensive end this worked reasonably well, especially after Spartan forward ShunQuez Stephens went out early grabbing his back. He did not return. That absence and energetic defense had Upstate settling early and often for jumpshots. A few fell, most missed and were rebounded by Dogs. So for much of the half even miserable State shooting didn’t dig too deep a hole.
The Dogs even got a brief lead as Daniels entered and scored consecutive driving layups. Upstate steadied and took a 22-15 intermission margin as State did not score in the last 4:33.
It was a 33-25 difference at 13:16 of the last half when the Spartans saw the inside sealed off and went cold outside. State used this stretch to catch up with Johnson doing most of the dirty work, drawing fouls and making one-pointers. A set of free shots gave the Dogs a 35-33 lead at 8:43, before Upstate found the range again with three-straight jumpers. They lost post man Michael Buchanan to fouls at 4:10 thanks to Johnson’s hard play inside.
The last State lead came at 1:53 when guard Trivante Bloodman got an off-balance banker to drop. But a full-court press produced a foul of Greene and one made free throw to tie. Bloodman pushed his luck too far, falling in the lane as the shot clock was fading for a turnover. The Spartans looked for an outside shot first, then a drive by Mario Blessing got Jacob Schulte open for the uncontested go-ahead layup. Ndoye had watched that one flat-footed, and while he redeemed himself with the rebound stuff it meant Upstate could play for a go-ahead shot.
The one Green made for his 12th point. Reserve forward Damian Goodwin led with 14 points in just 22 minutes’ work, and guard Fred Miller had ten points. Upstate shot 40.4% overall and only had seven turnovers.
By contrast the Bulldogs lost the ball 16 times. In the first half alone they had 11 turnovers against just 20 shots, meaning one-third of possessions had no chance of scoring. Ndoye had 11 points and three rebounds but was lost defensively when Upstate did get the ball inside. Ware got five minutes in the afternoon. Barely after subbing-in for the first half he went down at halfcourt howling, grabbing the left ankle. After playing briefly in the second half he left the Coliseum on crutches.
State also played without two injured freshmen. Rotation forward Demetrius Houston was out with a reported concussion from Friday’s practice; reserve guard Maurice Dunlap with a cracked bone in the shooting wrist suffered Thursday.
”We just didn’t bring it in the first half,” Johnson said. “The second half, we should have played more like that the first half and we’d probably have been up ten.”
The senior’s outlook was understandably optimistic. And Ray said the setback to Arkansas State wasn’t carried over into today, beyond the lineup adjustments. “We had two days of practice and focused on guys that gave us the best chance to win.”
Which is not exactly an encouraging comment for what might be in store. The Bulldogs will be back on their own court Tuesday for Jacksonville and at this point there isn’t an opponent Mississippi State can count as a win. Beatable, certainly. But only if the Bulldogs continue the defensive energy and find some way, any way to score baskets.
It didn’t sound as if Ray is thinking in that direction though, which would be the most painful admission of all; that State just does not have scorers on this roster. And defense can only keep a team competitive so long without points in support.
“It’s nothing we change overnight,” Ray said. “So we focus on the things we can change.”