Alabama overcame a short roster, awful shooting, and late-game gaffes to escape Humphrey Coliseum with a 55-51 victory. The Crimson Tide left 15-9 and 5-6 SEC. Mississippi State (11-13, 4-7) had to stay around and wonder how this one got away.
“It hurts,” guard Craig Sword said. “Because the last couple of years we haven’t had the chance of winning. Going in the locker room we started feeling that again.”
This was a change of recent trend, and not for the better. In seven preceding games the Bulldogs had played competitive and even winning (four times) ball. The three-point margin was no worse than other close losses in the stretch.
“We continue to have stat-lines that are really amazing.”
Tide Coach Anthony Grant might have been a bit amazed himself to leave with a victory. “It’s a great team win, one that we needed with seven games left getting a little momentum.”
Alabama almost wasted their late-game momentum. Having taken a 52-44 lead at the minute-mark, the Crimson Tide saw consecutive in-bounds throws deflected and scored, by Sword and guard Fred Thomas, to keep Bulldog hopes barely alive at 48.1 seconds.
The third in-bounds attempt was very nearly intercepted as well, before Justin Coleman came away with a loose ball at midcourt. The rest of the time was spent with Alabama taking six and making barely enough free throws to stay ahead of Bulldog baskets.
“We got a little rattled there,” Grant said. “We needed to regroup and (forward Riley) Norris did a good job breaking to the ball. He made some big-time toughness plays finding open teammates down the floor.”
“This is one that hurts,” said Ray. “Because we did some good things defensively. But we’ve got to win ball games like this on our home court.”
It was by any measure a winnable matchup for the home team. For one thing Alabama, missing one starter to injury and with another sidelined, had a cobbled-together lineup lacking scoring options. Shooters were especially missing, literally, as Ray most of the night correctly threw a zone in Alabama’s face and dared them to beat State at the arc.
The Tide tried. Half of their first-half shots were taken from long range with 3-of-14 results, and the second half was no better at 2-of-13. Closer to the goal Alabama was only 12-of-25, too. So Dog defense was sufficient to succeed.
Offensively? 37% State shooting was bad enough but that was when the Bulldogs had the chance to shoot. For 15 series, they didn’t, turning the ball over. Alabama did press a goodly portion of the game but this wasn’t a real issue.
“We didn’t turn the ball over against the press,” Ray said. “We turned the ball over in the half-court.” Three others were on straight in-bounds plays at Alabama’s end, and twice State had to burn timeouts before the five-second count.
For all the self-imposed problems, Mississippi State had excellent shots to win. Three-point plays in the first half by Sword and Thomas produced 12-9 and 17-14 leads. This was while the Tide looked for something, anything to work on offense. What did, was turning up their own defense for a nine-minute stretch.
During it the Bulldogs missed all ten shots from the floor with four turnovers, until a Sword steal-and-score for three points at 0:54. It allowed Alabama to carry a 25-21 lead into the locker room.
“We didn’t get into a rhythm early,” point guard I.J. Ready said. “The second half we got it going, but the first half we weren’t clicking.”
Clicking enough, anyway, compounded with even worse Alabama outside shooting over State’s full-time zone to produce eight tied scores in the period. Shannon Hale broke the last deadlock 38-38 at 7:31 with his short jumper, once the Tide was able to get the ball inside.
Hale finished with a game-best 14 points, while Levi Randolph was hounded into 4-of-11 shooting (2-of-6 on treys) and scored 13. The big guard was maybe more important on the glass with seven rebounds.
”We had some guys really step up,” Grant said. “Coming in we didn’t know if we’d have Mike Kessens available, he gave us 20 minutes. I thought Rodney Cooper came down with flu-like symptoms. And he was able to give us his 34 minutes.”
Sword and center Gavin Ware had 13 points apiece for State, though the Bulldog post was 3-of-13 from the floor. Ware was maybe the most frustrated man on the floor as he got a series of excellent baseline looks and shots he’s made before. Most missed this time for no real reason than they missed.
The same could be said of State’s 15-of-23 free throwing, an old issue that arose at another bad time. “We didn’t make our free throws,” Ray recited. “We had a lot of opportunities at the rim. And short corner-baseline, we had shot after shot after shot we didn’t make.”
Still, when twice Sword got a hand on Alabama in-bounds balls, the Bulldogs had some sort of last chance to salvage victory. “Desperation,” Sword said. “You have to do what you can do to stay in the game. As it turns out we couldn’t finish it.”
What might be finished, after a 20-point loss at Arkansas and this home-court setback, is Mississippi State’s ambitions of breaking-even in SEC play for the season. There are winnable games ahead of course; a series with Missouri, trip to South Carolina, for examples. But the Dogs looked at Tuesday as one of those winnable games, too.
At least veterans of the last two seasons know the routine now. “Move on,” said Sword. “We have to come back and practice like the two games we won on the road.”