Tennessee used a barrage of long shots to take an 80-75 victory at Mississippi State. The visiting Volunteers left 9-8 and 2-3 SEC, while the Bulldogs are 7-9 and winless in four conference contests.
Four close contests, too, a theme State’s squad is weary of already. Three of the four losses have come by a combined dozen points.
“I mean it’s very frustrating,” said center Gavin Ware.
As frustrating was watching another opponent bomb away at the arc. Ten of the Volunteers’ 26 baskets were made treys, out of 23 attempts. The 44% outside accuracy was better than the Tennessee norm, but Coach Rick Barnes was more pleased by the selections.
“I thought our threes for the most part were in rhythm of what we were doing. We got off to a good start and tried to simplify our offense, against zone or man.”
Bulldog Coach Ben Howland ended up simplifying his own defense, going to man in the second half after playing mostly zone in the first. Neither was noticeably better in stopping the Vols from knocking down jump shots based on percentage. “We chart everything,” Howland said. “The difference was the three-pointers.”
It was a different attack than the Bulldogs had scouted. “I thought Tennessee didn’t shoot the ball as well the last few games,” forward Quindarry Weatherspoon said. “They came out and hit a lot of threes against us.”
That included ripping five of the first six tries in the opening half, to build a 21-9 lead. Guards Detrick Mostella and Devon Baulkman each knocked down a pair of treys in the first half, then finished with five and three respectively. Mostella was 5-of-11 at the arc en route to a game-best 24 points, while Baulkman had a quiet second half for 14 total points.
Both fed-off what quarterback Kevin Punter was doing with the ball, scoring or passing. Punter provided 23 points, including 8-of-8 work at the foul line, with five assists. He was the only player, either side, which worked the entire 40 minutes.
“Give them credit,” Howland said. “I knew Tennessee was tough watching them on film. Mostella had the career game of his life, their Punter played a great game.” Guard Robert Hubbs added 14 points to help make-up for scoreless starter Admiral Schofield. The Vols were playing without Armani Moore’s 12.4 points and 7.9 rebounds.
“Everybody who went in the game and contributed someway, somehow,” Barnes said. “I thought Kevin Punter played his best game of the year in terms of sheer leadership.”
The Bulldogs did lead, once; 9-8 at 17:54. That didn’t last long as the Vols shredded nets over first the man and then State’s initial attempts to man-up. Had Tennessee not missed six-straight treys it would have been a blowout by halftime instead of 38-27. And, with MSU point guard IJ Ready getting hot mid-period for seven-straight points while freshman Weatherspoon took advantage of a starting job.
Howland went with a four-guard lineup, in fact, using the 6-4 Weatherspoon at ‘big’ forward. “That’s my first time to play the four, ever.” Weatherspoon would parlay the position change into his best rookie year game to-date, with 23 points in 34 minutes.
But he didn’t stay inside, hitting three treys in five tries while mixing in aggressive moves at the lane. “This was the right team to do it against, because they’re playing small,” Howland said.
Lone big Dog Ware was key to a second-half comeback though, hitting a couple of jumpers and crashing glass for rebounds and fouls. At 7:42 of the last half State was within two, and by 5:15 Tennessee was ahead just 60-59. Punter made a tough jumper, as did Hubbs and Baulkman; all of the Vol baskets down the stretch were well-earned. State also had some unaccustomed misses at the foul line which gave the visitors a little more breathing room.
Ware kept his double-digit scoring streak for the season going with 21 points and added ten boards. Nobody else got into twin-figures on offense though as Ready settled for nine. Craig Sword and Malik Newman struggled with combined 5-of-23 shooting though and the bench was unproductive.
Even then State had nine more rebounds, seven more assists and cut turnovers markedly from other games. And the Dogs still lost, this time because the other team had sharper outside shooters.
“Obviously, a disappointing loss,” Howland said. “To be down double-digits and fight our way back.”
The one ‘victory’ of the day for State? The coach acceded to his team’s request and went man-defense after halftime. And, from now on, he said. “We’ve got to live and die by our man defense,” Howland said.
State will test that next Tuesday at Florida with a 6:00ct tipoff.