A Bulldog bunch just about abandoned for dead pulled off a remarkable rally for a 64-59 final in Humphrey Coliseum. Mississippi State (14-8, 5-5 SEC) bounced back from consecutive losses to even the league mark. Tennessee also left 5-5 but 13-10 with a heavy blow to their NCAA hopes.
Post-season play remains a long shot for the Bulldogs. But the manner of the win as much as the W had the squad smiling for a change.
“This can really spark us to do something special in February,” guard Xavian Stapleton said. “Y’all will be seeing better play out of us the rest of the season.”
Stapleton’s play was easily the best seen from the sophomore transfer. Off the bench his six-point run really was the State spark mid-half. And when Stapleton pulled and hit on a three at 4:22 it gave Mississippi State a 54-53 lead, at last.
Stapleton finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds, along with four of his team’s six steals. All of it was done in 26 game-minutes, in relief.
“He was incredible defensively,” Coach Ben Howland said. “His offensive rebound with 2:00 to go was a huge play. His three finally gave us the lead. There were so many plays.” There was also the post-game hug and chat between coach and player while awaiting TV interviews.
“He thought I had the best game of the season, because I was more humble,” Stapleton said. “Sometimes I can get a little too competitive and crazy, he thought I focused more”
Stapleton, and most of the Bulldog backcourt, got a little crazy in the first half. Their combined misses contributed greatly to Tennessee building as much as a 19-point lead before the break, and a 41-23 score early in the last half. The visiting Volunteers seemed thissss close to a knockout punch.
They just couldn’t deliver it and finish a fifth-straight win. “A lot of credit to Mississippi State,” Vol Coach Rick Barnes said. “They were tougher down the stretch.”
Howland thought his team was tougher the whole game on one end at least. “Our defense kept us in the game.” Barely, as holding Tennessee to 44% in the first half did prevent a complete blowout. In the second the Vols missed 20 of 30 shots, and most of those rebounds went into Bulldog paws.
Still this might not have made enough difference if State hadn’t changed the offense. The Bulldogs, guards and forwards alike, took too many long shots and missed most going 4-of-19 at the arc. Leading scorers Quinndary Weatherspoon and Lamar Peters were especially off their games. In fact neither would get on the scoreboard until the last quarter of play, and finish with just 11 combined points on 4-of-26 shooting.
Only three made-treys from forward Mario Kegler kept the home team competitive at all. That, and some boost off the bench from Stapleton. He didn’t shoot well in the first half himself, 1-of-5. But he was a more physical presence against a Tennessee team that relies on big guards more than real post personnel.
“Our offense was really anemic early on,” Howland said. “It was just too much perimeter-oriented.” After halftime the coach demanded center Schnider Herard get more touches. It worked, gradually.
Herard only had five official field goal attempts in 32 minutes. That’s because mostly he would get fouled in other attempts, or on rebounds of which he had plenty. “I’m bigger than them so I just had to go get the rebounds,” Herard said.
Herard came away with 15 boards and went to the stripe 14 times. Only eight of those one-pointers went good, but “We got some guys in foul trouble,” Howland said. This also seemed to take a lot of wind from Vol sails in the second half, while at the same time State’s energy grew.
Stapleton was the key. He turned steals into consecutive baskets and scored off a Kegler miss for good measure in his personal run. Herard’s made free throws gradually chipped away Tennessee’s margin, then Weatherspoon finally got something to drop. He tied it 51-51 at 6:10 with a layup.
Stapleton didn’t just give State its first lead with the made-trey. He exploded off the floor to block Grant Williams in the lane and trigger transition. State managed to miss a layup and tip yet still get the third carom out to Kegler. He hit his fourth and final trey at 3:47 for a four-point lead.
Tennessee was within 60-59 at 1:05 and Peters missed a trey, but Herard rebounded and missed twice before Kegler snuck in for the good tip at0:27. Kegler also iced it with free throws after the Vols missed two trey-tries to tie.
Kegler led all with 17 points and added nine boards, while Herard got his second double-double of the freshman season with 12/15. Jordan Bone’s 13 points paced Tennessee and Williams added 11. But guard Robert Hubbs, who torched State two weeks ago in Knoxville, had just four points in 32 minutes as Kegler and Stapleton took turns defending him.
Barnes wondered if his team had things too easy too early. “Coming down the stretch we didn’t do what we needed to do.” We didn’t make winning plays. We get out-rebounded, they win the battle of turnovers.”
For State to succeed with bad offensive outings by Weatherspoon and Peters (hampered by a hip pointer) was big in itself. To storm back from such a deficit? That was huge. Plus, senior point guard IJ Ready was sidelined all day by his ankle injury and renewed back spasms.
“We needed this win,” Howland said.