Alabama withstood a second-half charge to regain lead and control in a 68-58 win at Mississippi State. Twice the host Bulldogs deadlocked the scoreboard, and each time Alabama answered to take the league lidlifter for both.
“That was a tough loss, and a tough way to start the conference season,” said Coach Ben Howland as Mississippi State walked off the home court 9-4, 0-1. The Crimson Tide left town 8-5, 1-0.
Alabama led for over 30 of the game-minutes, including a 14-point bulge before halftime. Howland’s club did battle on back to tie things up, 42- and 44-all. The energy expended showed though as State couldn’t push past even and put the visitors on the defensive.
“It was very frustrating we couldn’t take the lead from them,” said forward Mario Kegler.
The chance was there, after first-time starting guard Xavian Stapleton squared the score 42-42 with his dunk at 11:20. Alabama missed two chances in one turn with forward Aric Holman snagging the second rebound.
Just 21 seconds later Holman had the ball in his hands again, this time under his own goal with nothing between him and the rim. Problem was, Holman caught the rim going up for his dunk. Alabama rebounded and while Holman did block the next Tide shot Shannon Hale boarded and scored.
The Bulldogs had one more tie to go on guard Tyson Carter’s jumper, but Alabama answered with a 9-2 run to regain control and made more than enough free throws to keep it.
“A little bit of a roller-coaster of a game for us,” Tide Coach Avery Johnson said. “But we’ll take it.”
While Alabama rode the ups-and-downs, State was about the ins-and-outs. Showing up late for shootaround put 12-game starter Holman on the bench to begin. Freshman Schnider Herard did at least bring more bulk to the post.
But he struggled through his first college start, missing the only official shot and making four free throws with five rebound against four turnovers. Herard was also limited by fast fouls to just 16 minutes. Holman off the bench was good for five points and five boards in 25 minutes.
Howland had a more tactical reason starting taller, stouter Stapleton over freshman Carter for the first time. Yet this backfired in the second half as Stapleton felt a ‘pop’ in his twice-repaired knee and went to the locker room. A closer examination will be made Wednesday.
Off the bench Carter played well with ten points and two of State’s four three-point baskets.
But long shots were a sore spot for Howland. The Bulldogs came in averaging 38% at the arc, only to go 4-of-21 or 19%. And as the coach noted, half of State’s first-half shots were long shots, 14 out of 28. “A way too big percentage,” Howland said. “We were way too impatient offensively.”
Alabama didn’t light it up at long range either, going 3-of-13. But the Tide did have the superior inside game, out-scoring State 16-6 in paint points for the first half. Down 9-3 at 15:36, Alabama steadied the pace by working in close for high-percentage chances and quite a few fouls on the home team. The result was a 32-20 halftime advantage.
What hurt the Bulldogs most in the half was guard Quinndary Weatherspoon’s struggles. The 49% shooter missed all six shots in the first period and finished 2-of-12 for a season-low seven points. “Weatherspoon is a guy they lean on a lot in most of their possessions,” Tide coach Johnson said. “He’s just an all-SEC player so the smart thing to do is give him a lot of attention.”
“They did a good job over-playing Q,” Howland said. “But he pressed early on instead of letting it come to him.”
Weatherspoon and Carter did strike for fast treys to begin the second half and make it a two-possession game most of the way. What Mississippi State needed was a third chance that never came.
“We’d come down and make a bad decision or something, and they’d get another run,” said Kegler, leading Dog scorer with 12 points to go with seven rebounds. Guard Lamar Peters had troubles finding his best shots but managed nine points before fouling out.
Alabama got 13 points from both guards Avery Johnson Jr. and Dazon Ingram, with 11 points by guard Riley Norris. Ingram’s nine rebounds helped the Tide dominate both boards with a 17-rebound advantage.
The loss was State’s fourth in SEC openers, second under Howland; and a fourth-straight defeat in the Hump to their nearest league neighbor. Alabama has won eight of the last ten meetings wherever played.
The Bulldogs have to put opening-night SEC setback behind quickly because Saturday finds them at Louisiana State for a 2:30 tip.