“It was just a few battles we lost,” guard Malik Newman said. “And I think that’s what cost us the game.”
A game that inside the final minute was there for the winning, either way. A creative layup by guard Craig Sword had it tied 57-57, and the Aggies’ look for a quick shot was not there as the Bulldog zone made the initial stop.
But A&M quarterback Alex Caruso patiently wanted for something to shake free. It turned out to be Jalen Jones on the left baseline, for a layin at 0:20. “I saw him out of the corner of my eye, and he just finished it,” said Caruso, the SEC leader in assists.
Mississippi State’s response became a turnover as Sword stumbled into a double-team and fumbled the ball into a tie with Aggie possession at 0:06. Admon Gilder’s free throws made a four-point margin that a buzzer-beater three by guard Quindarry Weatherspoon didn’t beat the Aggies.
Texas A&M left Humphrey Coliseum 12-2 and 2-0 SEC. The Bulldogs saw a three-win streak snapped and are 7-6, 0-1. “Well, that’s a tough loss after a great effort by our team,” Coach Ben Howland said.
“We had a chance to beat a top-twenty team here at home, a couple of times. So as bad as you feel about losing, it’s encouraging.”
The first-year coach’s comments did not imply any sort of moral victory. They did reflect progress in one worrisome area. After weeks of struggles on defense, the Bulldogs held an A&M offense to two-thirds of their average. The Aggies shot just 31% for the evening and worse than that in the first half.
In fact, Howland was happy how State’s zone—a defense not to his own taste—took the opponent out of their game. A&M threw up 27 treys, out of 62 total attempts from the floor. They did make nine but most came in minutes either side of halftime.
“I was really pleased with the zone,” Howland said, “to hold a top-twenty team under 31% from the field.”
The problem was, too many Aggie misses ended up back in Aggie hands. Of their 41 rebounds, 20 were offensive and led to 16 second-chance points. Adding in a turnover difference, “They had 13 more shots at the basket,” Howland said.
Fortunately most of them were missing early on. Neither team shot sharp in the opening quarter with combined 0-of-8 by the teams before Caruso stuck a corner trey. The Bulldogs got a few long shots of their own to drop and with Weatherspoon attacking the goal directly State gained a 20-11 lead at 7:20.
In retrospect the game got away there, as while A&M was still cold—they began by making just 4 of 25 shots—the Bulldogs also cooled off and didn’t expand the lead with a series of rushed shots and turnovers. Texas A&M got a four-point play as Anthony Collins was fouled by guard Fred Thomas on a made-three. A corner shot before the horn gave the visitors a 28-25 halftime margin.
The other first-half factor was center Gavin Ware going scoreless. “I feel I was rushing a little and not settling down. It was figuring out where the double-team was coming from.”
Ware got a feel for the twin-teaming in the second half, and moved outside the lane to hit a short jumper to break his own ice. He would add longer jumpers over A&M’s zone, as well as work inside for rebounds and fouls. “He settled down and played well the second half,” Howland said.
But the Aggies found the unintended key to success the final ten minutes by missing shots and catching the caroms, many of which kicked beyond Bulldog reach. Twice the second-shots were made-treys, by Collins and Caruso which had State playing catch-up the rest of the way. Part of this was because Newman, who came in having hit 11 of 12 free throws in three games, missed two chances at 1:35 that loomed large.
“It was real frustrating, with those two we could have been up or tied the game. It was a crucial moment and I feel I disappointed my team.”
Ware finished with 15 points, all in the last half, and had 13 rebounds for his fourth double-double of the season. Newman in his first SEC action had 14 points with three treys, while classmate Weatherspoon had 12 off the bench with five rebounds and a block.
If the Aggies didn’t shoot well as a team they had balance. Jones, Caruso, and DJ Hogg all had 11 points with 24 combined rebounds. Gilder added 10 points. The Aggies played without guard Danuel House, their second-leading scorer, who stayed back in College Station.
“A hard-fought game,” Aggie Coach Billy Kennedy said. “We didn’t shoot the ball well, we didn’t finish around the basket. Give Mississippi State credit, but we found a way to win.” Prior to the game, Kennedy's second-year top assistant and former Mississippi State head coach Rick Stansbury was recognized upon his return to Humphrey Coliseum. Stansbury, head coach from 1999-2012, was presented a bench-style chair showing his MSU records and achievements by athletic director Scott Stricklin.
Howland now makes his first SEC road trip, though not his first trip to Fayetteville, as the Bulldogs are at Arkansas for a 2:30 Saturday game.