Bulldogs Drop West Test At LSU

Consider the ‘road warrior' title officially retired. More importantly, begin worrying if Mississippi State's run of Division titles is also endangered.

A three-pointer by Darrel Mitchell, the seventh Tiger trey of the day, and free throws from Brandon Bass gave host Louisiana State the winning margin in a key SEC West contest. The 69-62 victory let the Tigers, 11-6 overall and 4-2 SEC, replace the Bulldogs in second place in the Division.

Meanwhile #24-ranked State left Baton Rouge 16-5, 4-3 SEC, and losers for a third-straight road trip. This one might have hurt more than the others, though, because the Bulldogs had rallied from a 12-point deficit to twice get within a point in the waning minutes. Neither time was State able to make the necessary defensive stop and take a shot at stealing a road game.

"They made big shots a couple of times to keep the lead," Coach Rick Stansbury said.

Those shots came from the top Tigers of the afternoon, who scored every LSU point in the final ten minutes of the game and 46 of their team's total output. Sophomore forward Bass dominated the last ‘quarter' of play, scoring 12 of his game-best 26 points. He hit 11 of his 14 shots for the day, the most notable a baseline jumper at 2:17after Mississippi State had pulled within 60-59.

But it was Mitchell's 20 points which made the difference to Stansbury. "He's the one that really hurt us." And nothing hurt more than a corner jumper at 1:31 that stretched a one-point lead into a 65-61 cushion. Mitchell canned three treys in all and sat out only one minute in a terrific effort that included seven assists and a pair of steals.

The three-balls loomed the largest, though, as Mitchell had more treys than the whole Dog team. State was just 2-of-10 from the arc. "That's a 15-point difference, that's a huge stat," noted Stansbury, whose team actually finished with slight edges in shooting and rebounding. LSU's outside accuracy more than offset those stats. "You have to make some shots on the road to win."

MSU did get 15 points, none of them easy, from forward Lawrence Roberts as the All-American was only 3-of-11 from the field. He also grabbed a dozen rebounds for another ‘double-double.' Point guard Gary Ervin manufactured ten points and rookie center Walter Sharpe came off the bench for a season-best 12 points in 21 minutes, many due to extra Tiger attention on Roberts.

"They doubled early and often," Roberts said. "They challenged us to swing the ball and have somebody else make some shots or drive the ball."

But the only Bulldog longballs came from guard Shane Power and backup guard Dietric Slater, that one a surprise as the soph had not thrown in a trey since December 11. The Tigers did play a great deal of zone defense in the middle ‘quarters' but State was still unable create and take open perimeter shots before Power and others were guarded.

The second half opened promisingly enough for State as consecutive Ervin layups put the Bulldogs on top 34-33. But the next points did not come until Power rattled in a jumper at 15:15. In-between the home team had run off ten unanswered points, starting with a three-pointer by Bass, of all people, as he was left unguarded on the wing. An acrobatic three-point play by Mitchell and a trey by the guard had LSU leading 43-34. And the margin would reach as much as a dozen when Bass scored on consecutive layups for a 56-44 lead and a Stansbury timeout at 9:47.

To their credit the rattled Dogs did not roll over, instead they reeled off nine-straight points off their own. Roberts scored four quick free throws, Sharpe got a fastbreak layup, and Power drained his lone trey off the break. With seven minutes still to play it was a 56-53 game, and while LSU did push back out to a seven-point margin briefly the Bulldogs were still in striking distance.

"We dug down and fought hard," Roberts said. But they never regained a lead, even after Sharpe rebounded and scored for the 60-59 count and Ervin dropped in a scoop-shot for a 62-61 difference at 1:56. Each time the Tigers got a clutch basket, while in the last minute Ervin missed a forced attempt and Ontario Harper made just one of two free chances. Harper also missed a hurried trey in the late seconds after the Tigers had padded the lead to more than two possessions.

The first half was just about a close all the way through, though LSU did scratch out to a 18-13 lead midway of the period. State's problems were obvious early, as the only consistent offense came either by getting the ball to Roberts or center Marcus Campbell down low for baskets—or free throws—or with Ervin creating an occasional driving opportunity. And on both ends play was more energetic than efficient with frequent substituting preventing any sort of rhythm for either side.

It was Slater's unexpected three that gave State a brief spark, along with Tiger misses, and produced a 20-18 lead on a Harper loose-ball layup. If the Dogs had done a bit better job defending the perimeter they would have held the advantage at intermission. But they left sub Ross Neltner open out top for LSU's fourth threeball and 33-30 halftime advantage. Roberts was held to five points and one basket in the period, and it was only better Bulldog rebounding at each end keeping things so close.

Sharpe's efforts in the second half kept things competitive until the end. The freshman, who did not play in a home win over South Carolina, responded to playing time with aggressive offense. "I got comfortable after I hit a couple of shots. They started bringing the ball to me more and I just got in the flow."

But three Dogs in double-digits weren't enough to offset two big Tiger performances, much less timely contributions from other LSU sources. And State self-destructed frequently with 15 turnovers while LSU, which ranked last in SEC turnover ratio, had just 13 miscues.

"It wasn't about lack of effort, we showed some scrappiness," Stansbury said. "But we had three critical turnovers in a spell and they made two huge shots."

And as a result Mississippi State goes into the last week of January two notches down the Division ladder. The Bulldogs have little time to bounce back, with a Tuesday night home game against red-hot Florida looming. But, at least they are home…and hoping to continue one remaining trend of not losing back-to-back games since February of 2003.

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