Quindarry Weatherspoon’s high heave from the left corner swished as time expired to give the Bulldogs a 75-74 victory over Vanderbilt. “I don’t think I ever hit a game-winner,” the true freshman guard said. “That’s the first one!”
His huge trey, officially coming at 0:00, made Mississippi State 11-14 and 4-9 SEC. Considering that early in the second half the outcome seemed settled, and for that matter all his team has endured so far, Coach Ben Howland was happier for the squad than himself.
“A lot of close games we’ve been on the wrong side of,” the first-year MSU coach said. “So it’s nice to come out ahead.”
Vanderbilt left 15-11, 7-6, after taking a bad blow to their post-season status. This, after leading by as much as 17 points in the second half and 71-62 at 5:50.
“When you control the game for that long you should win,” VU Coach Kevin Stallings said. “And we didn’t.”
Instead Mississippi State found itself with opportunity to steal the home game at the end. Repeated opportunities, that is. Leading by one, the Commodores had reliable Riley LaChance on the foul line with two shots. He missed the first, made the second leaving 0:27 to play for a tie or win.
Guard Malik Newman went for the latter, leaving his top-trey wide. Which was key because the rebound kicked over the taller ‘Dores and into center Gavin Ware’s hands. His position wasn’t all that bad either, “But I was like nah, it was best if I passed it out.”
“I’ve never seen Gavin pass up a shot,” teased IJ Ready. The point guard did the same as the defense closed-in on him quickly enough…but leaving Weatherspoon all by his lonesome. “Q was in the corner, hollering.”
Weatherspoon also had the presence of mind to set and release, even with 7-0 Damian Jones bearing down. “I had to shoot it kind of high because he was closing so hard. But it felt good off my hand.” And even better snapping the net with the backboard lights turning red.
“That sure was a fun thing for me to watch that thing go in,” said Howland.
Weatherspoon’s buzzer-beater, the first for a Bulldog since Bryan Bryant at South Carolina in 2012, gave him a game-best and season-most 24 points. The freshman scored 14 of those in the second half with three of his four treys, and was 8-of-10 at the free throw line.
Ware added 18 points, all off the bench as Howland did not start the senior for what he called a minor disciplinary matter. “No big deal,” the coach said. Ware was a very big deal on each end, hitting 8-of-12 shots and coming down with 13 total rebounds…a dozen of them defensive boards that limited Vanderbilt’s second chance opportunities. His only offensive board of course became Weatherspoon’s game-winner.
The un-sung hero afterwards though was not even on the court for the final moments. Guard Craig Sword scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half before fouling-out at 7:22. He did more than anyone to hack into Vanderbilt’s huge lead.
“Chicken was the one who led us coming back,” Howland said. “He helped lead that comeback, he scored 14 points in 22 minutes.”
A comeback seemed out of the picture for most of the evening. After a sputtering start the Commodores got their perimeter offense clicking behind Matthew Davis-Fisher and bolted to a 21-7 lead. Mississippi State did make a few runs at Vanderbilt but trailed 41-32 at halftime as the ‘Dores had already hit six treys and were ruling the glass.
By 14:12 of the last half the margin was 59-42 with Vanderbilt feasting off State mistakes. Then something changed around the 8:00 mark. “We took bad shots, turned the ball over, and gave them layups in transition,” said Stallings. Sword did the damage until getting his fifth personnel; Weatherspoon and Ware took it from there.
“What was best for us was penetrating and jump-stopping and attacking the rim,” Howland said. Of if necessary pulling at the arc, which Weatherspoon and Ready did for a 71-70 deficit at 3:47. It helped that Ware rose to the defensive occasion.
“We doubled Jones for the majority of the game and got their shooters open,” Ready said. “Towards the end we told Gavin he was on his own.” Jones missed three of his last four shots other than a dunk at 1:53 for the last Vanderbilt basket. Ware’s reverse layup at 0:41 kept the Dogs in striking distance.
“We were fortunate (LaChance) missed one of the two foul shots,” Howland said. More fortunate then when Newman’s wide-right went right to Ware and ultimately cycled-around to the right Dog in the right spot.
“I’m just so excited right now for the win, that’s all,” Weatherspoon said.
Jones and Davis-Fischer still managed 20 points apiece in their differing ways, as Davis-Fischer had six treys and the big forward was 9-of-16 inside. Jones also had ten boards. Jeff Roberson scored a dozen points with two treys and Wade Baldwin got ten points though he was 3-of-12 shooting. Despite a very slow offensive start the Bulldogs ended up the better marksmen, 48% to 44% overall.
The Commodores still have opportunities ahead to rebuild their NCAA bid hopes. Mississippi State isn’t in that conversation at all of course. But neither are the Bulldogs left just running out the schedule now.
“Bottom line this gives momentum going to Alabama,” said Howland.