Mississippi State missed on 20 of 44 total shots from the foul line, no less than 13 of them in the second half, and as a direct result watched Tennessee exit the Hump with a 61-47 victory. The Volunteers took this SEC opener for both clubs and are 9-4.
The Bulldogs are 7-7 after dropping the league debut, and as frustrated as they’ve been all season. Which is saying a lot. “We just couldn’t find shots at the free throw line,” center Gavin Ware said.
They didn’t have to find them; charity chances were given in bunches. Making good on the one-pointers was another matter entirely, as well as out of character. For all the other struggles Mississippi State came in one of the SEC’s better ball clubs in free throwing at 73%. With any remotely efficient night at the stripe they would have won.
”But this game boiled down to our inability to make free throws,” Coach Rick Ray said. “I don’t think there’s a game I’ve ever seen a team gets to the line 44 times, holds the other team to 35% (shooting), and loses.” Yet this is exactly what the Bulldogs did.
Vol Coach Donnie Tyndall, a friend of Ray’s, tried to be kind in victory. “We knew it would be a grind-it-out type game. We’re very fortunate they missed free throws, it was closer than the score indicates.”
That wasn’t entirely good will on Tyndall’s part. His team indeed shot poorly from the field all evening, wasting a hot start and 12-0 lead in the process. Tennessee even flirted with roster disaster by fouling so frequently that three players were disqualified and two more finished at four personals on a nine man active roster. Had the game gone much longer the Vols would have played short-handed.
Then again it might not have mattered. As artic as the Bulldogs were from the foul stripe they were cryogenic from the other line, making just 1-of-9 three point attempts. But of course State is not a capable outside-offense team in the best of times and Ray did not count on threes. He had another plan and in one way it worked perfectly.
“We did what we wanted to do against that zone, which was paint-attack,” Ray said. This produced closer shots as well as all those fouls. It didn’t matter because State was 10-of-27 on two-pointers. Only Ware got into double-digits with 12 points, and did so off the bench. And, in just 25 minutes. The junior post hasn’t started since spraining an ankle in December so this wasn’t a surprise.
Not using the team’s only effective offensive threat more was a coach’s call, including down the stretch. Asked for a reason, “Yeah, he just was hurting us on ball-screen defense,” Ray said.
This might have made some sense had not Tennessee already been missing first shots but, with Ware out, getting to lots of do-overs and fresh clocks. The Vols finished with 16 offensive rebounds out of their total 44 and had 15 second-chance points. Ware did get nine rebounds out of State’s 28 with seven defensive boards.
Ray certainly could not have forseen his squad, coming off last Friday’s home win over Florida State, would not show up for tipoff. In less than five minutes Tennessee led 12-0 by making five of nine shots. And it wasn’t good defense keeping State scoreless, but two misses and six turnovers.
But it wasn’t to be a blowout. After a trey from Josh Richardson for the dozen-point lead, the Vols did not score again until 5:45. The Bulldogs used the reprieve to first catch up and even take a 16-14 lead with Ware and forward Roquez Johnson getting the ball in close for easier baskets.
“You start out 12-0 and go 12 minutes without scoring another field goal,” Tyndall shrugged. “That’ our team, nothing comes easy and we know that.” Four more Ware points had the Dogs in front as late as 1:10 of halftime, before the Vols eased back ahead 26-23 at intermission.
Ray opened the new half with the same lineup as the first, only saying he thought it was the best group to begin each period. It wasn’t, either time. Because except for a tip-in by forward Travis Daniels 25 seconds after inbounds, no Bulldog scored a basket of any sort again until 8:34. By Daniels also, the only trey made all evening. Everything else was free throws and not enough of those as the misses added up.
It was still a five-point game when Tennessee’s Josh Richardson flipped the ball up, touched no iron or even glass, and caught the ball himself for what ought have been a travel. Or something. Allowed to continue play with his ‘rebound’ Richardson kicked it out to Detrick Mostella to stick a three.
Bad enough, except Mostella caught Johnson’s inbounds pass and instantly pulled the trigger again. And was good again for three more and a 38-27 score. “Detrick is a guy who can give you a burst off the bench,” Tyndall said. “He’s never going to turn down a shot.”
Tennessee gradually ground out 15-point leads until State made something like a charge, drawing within 53-45 at 2:20 when guard Trivante Bloodman did make two free chances. But when Derek Reese threw in a three 33 seconds later any long shot at rallying was shot down.
Kevin Punter had a game-best 15 points before fouling out, Richardson 11 points and Kevon Baulkman eight. Reese came up with ten rebounds, seven of them offensive when no Dog was guarding the goal on UT misses.
”This is really disheartening,” Ray said, a frightening comment coming on only the first day of a 18-game SEC schedule. But there wasn’t any arguing it either. The Bulldogs did some things just right; they defended first shots well, and attacked the full-time Tennessee zone to earn all those free throws. When the misses began though…
”I believe we were kind of rushing,” Ware said. “Once we got fouled, we rushed into our free throws.” Perhaps so, but several trips were made after time-outs to settle down and still resulted in misses.
“It’s like a disease,” Ray said. Because we’ve been shooting free throws pretty well throughout. Hopefully this is an anomaly and not a pattern.”
Either way State has no time to second-guess. They leave for Gainesville and a Saturday evening game with a Florida team that has had it’s own struggles and is also short-handed. But the Gators are at home, have a measure of annual confidence, and play nothing like Tennessee at either end.
”We’re just going to have to practice and work hard and find a way to execute our plays,” guard Craig Sword said.