Victoria Vivians (Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page)

State Loses SEC Title Shot, Will be Second Seed at League Tourney

It could have been the program’s greatest day so far. Instead the regular-season finale completed a lost week of championship opportunities for #3-ranked Mississippi State.

Tennessee spoiled Sunday’s regular-season finale by bolting to a double-digit lead and never letting up in an 82-64 victory. A sellout crowd packed Humphrey Coliseum expecting to see the home team play for a first-ever Southeastern Conference crown. And, to celebrate four members of Coach Vic Schaefer’s first recruiting class on their Senior Day.

Afterwards Schaefer said yes, there was still pride in what the seniors and squad have done. “And yet days like today humble you.”

Stunned was a better early word for it by Tennessee’s relentless attack. Other than a bucket by Victoria Vivians eight seconds after tipoff, Mississippi State never led. Just the opposite, the Dogs found themselves down 18-8 after one quarter and by sixteen at halftime. Most of the official 10,500 stayed to the waning minutes…but all recognized this one was done long before.

“Today was basically our worst game,” said one of the seniors, guard Dominque Dillingham. “We gave them everything they wanted and they made every shot they looked at.”

This wasn’t too much exaggerating. The Volunteers (19-10, 10-6 SEC) were under 50% shooting only in the second quarter and finished 54.7%. Forward Jaime Nared set the tone with nine first-period points, working inside for easy layups or fouls and if necessary stepping outside for the three. By game’s end Nared had 30 points leading an efficient approach.

“A lot of our baskets were off transition,” Nared said. “We pushed the ball the whole game and when they got tired we kept pushing.”

Guard Diamond DeShields started slower but caught the second-half pace to total 20 points, while guard Jordan Reynolds balanced things out with 17. Center Mercedes Russell didn’t have to be big on the scoring end at nine points, as her board-work did more damage. The Bulldogs lost the rebound column by 13 and several of the caroms were recovered well-outside the paint.

“We were out-toughed, out-hustled, it seemed we lost all the energy plays,” Schaefer said. “And those are things we pride ourselves on.”

Mississippi State has taken plenty pride in defense all winter. It wasn’t showing Sunday. In fact Schaefer was so frustrated he went to a zone defense, a sure sign nothing was working as planned.

“Despite their pressure we were still able to take good shots,” DeShields said. “We were mature with the ball, we didn’t rush shots.”

Meanwhile the Bulldogs weren’t making shots. They took more, a lot more in the first period. But other than a couple of Vivans drives little rolled right as State was 4-of-21 in the quarter. Six of the misses were trey-tries, too.

Still State wasn’t relying on arc attempts this game as much as usual. Schaefer wanted to attack inside and did, only to see unkind home iron and many inexplicable wrong rolls. About the only productive area was driving the right side of the lane one-on-one and flinging something off the glass. As the scoreboard showed this wasn’t enough.

If not for Vivians’ 10 first-half points the crowd could have left even earlier. She would finish with 18, yet only played six second-half minutes. Her involvement in a dubious double-technical after a rebound wrestling match, when another Vol ran in to shove her so both got T’d, contributed to the frustrations.

Schaefer’s real issue was with unproductive posts. Starter Chinwe Okorie missed all three field goal attempts and both free throws to go scoreless for 15 minutes. Alternate Teaira McCowan, a star in State’s January win in Knoxville, recorded a single point on four shots in 25 minutes.

Asked what the Volunteers were doing defensively to shut-down Bulldog bigs, “Probably not a whole lot other than standing behind them,” Schaefer bluntly said. “It’s two games in a row we haven’t got a lot out of them.”

State hasn’t had guard Roshunda Johnson available a lot lately with both shoulder and family concerns. She did return to more action this day and put some spark in the squad with ten third-quarter points and 16 overall. Johnson hit three of the four made-treys, as Tennessee in the second half was content to allow Dog drives and trade two-pointers while guarding the perimeter tightly.

Guard Morgan William was the other double-digit Dog with ten points and four of the six assists. That stat itself showed how little effective passing was done by a team forced into nothing but dribble driving and some jump-shooting.

“I want to commend Tennessee, they were prepared and played an extremely good ball game,” Schaefer said. At the same time, “I’m extremely disappointed. Personally I feel a tremendous disappointment in how my team played. I’m ultimately responsible for that.”

Now 27-3 and 12-3 SEC the Bulldogs are on two-loss skid going into tournament time. This and Thursday’s overtime setback at Kentucky mean no conference crown and a #2 SEC Tourney seed. South Carolina clinched a share of the title in the afternoon and watched the whole thing fall their way later.

So Mississippi State goes to Greenville, S.C. still automatically in the quarterfinals where they await the winner of Ole Miss-LSU. The other side of this bracket has Texas A&M vs. Missouri, so at least the Bulldogs will avoid Kentucky. Tennessee has earned a fifth seeding in the league meet.

However, having climbed to overall second in preliminary NCAA rankings for one of the four number-one seeds, State has given away all their margin with consecutive setbacks. To be a #1 now almost certainly requires winning-out in the home state of the other team to beat them this regular season. Schaefer is still reasonably confident Humphrey Coliseum will be hosting opening-weekend NCAA Tournament play for another year.

But even that can’t be taken for granted, and the Bulldogs have put themselves in jeopardy of assignment to Connecticut’s regional.

State will leave early Wednesday for Greenville. Friday’s game time is 5:00ct.

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