Mississippi State wrapped up the regular schedule 21-9, 9-7 SEC. And while the Bulldogs can turn attention to tournament season, the six State upperclassmen will take time to get over leaving The Hump for the last time on the wrong side of the final score.
"This place has been so special to me and this is not how I wanted to go out," senior guard Shane Power said…after, that is, he had to interrupt the Q&A with reporters for a private moment to regain a veteran's composure. "Stuff doesn't always work out your way."
The '05 finale certainly didn't, with State losing on Senior Day for the first time since 1999. The Bulldogs also suffered their first season-series sweep at Alabama hands since 1994. "Things happen," said senior guard Winsome Frazier. "Sometimes the ball doesn't bounce on your court."
Back on their own court the Bulldogs were planning on evening the score, and with 2:40 left and the score knotted the opportunity was there. State forced consecutive Tide turnovers and cashed them in for layups by Harper and backup guard Dietric Slater, tying the count 55-55.
Only 21 ticks later every trend turned against the home team. With the Dog defense doubling Tide forward Chuck Davis inside and chasing Winston around the perimeter, Steele found himself alone with the ball at the top of the key. The rookie pulled the trigger on a trey at 2:19, and Alabama was in front to stay.
"We didn't rotate in time and he got an open look and knocked it down," Harper said. Just as every time before when the Bulldogs made a run at Alabama, some Tide body rose to the occasion and the opportunity.
"Their offense puts pressure on every position," Power said. "You have to double somewhere and they make you pay."
The price was defeat. With first-option shooter Frazier on the bench after fouling out at 3:55, Harper had to force a corner trey-try that missed and Alabama got the ball back on a rebound-tie at 1:52. At the other end Davis spun around Roberts for a layup (just his second goal) and five-point lead, and after a MSU turnover Winston drew a foul for two free points at 1:19. His breakaway dunk capped a nine-point outburst that sealed the outcome.
State got no closer than 64-60 with only 37 seconds remaining before Steele hit four clinching free throws in the final half-minute. Winston and Steele combined for 11 of Alabama's last 13 points, while forward Jean Felix came off the bench for 13 and starting guard Earnest Shelton had 11 more. Coach Rick Stansbury pointed to Felix's clutch contributions as a real reason the Tide won, with the junior throwing in a fluke trey to break a 45-45 tie at 7:47 and another at 5:09 after the Bulldogs had pulled within 50-49.
"Give Alabama credit," said Power, who Felix was literally leaning on as he heaved up the 24-footer that banked in. "They've got four pros in their starting five."
Those two shots did more than keep the Tide in front, they emphasized Mississippi State's fatal failing in the home finale. The Bulldogs just could not shoot well, or often at all. Facing a non-stop Alabama zone defense, State shot just 30.3% for the day and a miserable 5-of-28 at the three-point arc. It was MSU's worst overall accuracy since 2001.
"I thought our team played with as much toughness and energy as you can play with," Stansbury said. "That doesn't always translate into shooting well, and that's where the game was decided."
In fact, the home Dogs shot so poorly that Alabama was able to allow State to take an incredible 33 more attempts from the field, 76 to 43, and still win. The Tide shot well, 21-of-43, and was an even more accurate 21-of-27 at the free throw line. But coach and team alike were satisfied State played hard enough and good enough defense to win.
Only the shots failed to fall. Especially at the arc, where State was 0-of-12 in the first half. Alabama took only 11 three-point tries all day and made, annoyingly, the same total of five. "They made shots at critical times and we didn't make enough shots," Harper said.
"When teams zone you, you have to make outside shots," Stansbury said. "And we didn't. We had some good shots, we just missed a lot of shots. I'm sure some were contested but you're going to have those days." Just not as bad a day as this one turned out to be.
The State staff was not surprised Alabama opened in a 2-3 zone. "They play a lot of zone on the road," said Stansbury. What the Tide did not know was starting center Marcus Campbell would be sidelined by a pulled calf muscle suffered in Friday's shootaround. That made the zone-plan an even better bet as it turned out.
Stansbury used Campbell's absence to insert Frazier into the starting lineup, for the first time since the guard broke a foot-bone on January 8 at Mississippi. And Frazier put up the day's first points on a layup of his own miss. But it was clear immediately the zone would cause State problems. After Shelton hit a trey the Tide went on a 9-0 run and led 15-6 by 13:13.
The Bulldogs steadied the defense, forcing a series of missed and turnovers, and transition produced a couple of needed baskets and free throws to make the count 15-14 in four minutes. Still the offense was clearly not in any sort of synch. State also had bad breaks, as Frazier knocked a ball free and had a breakaway, if not for colliding with an official. The scramble play ended up a jumper for UA's Justin Jonus. On offense again Roberts was fouled on a move and his layup negated, infuriating Stansbury so that if not for a TV-timeout he might have drawn a technical.
The coach was already upset over his team firing up trey-tries too quickly and in-accurately. "I think we got in sort of a groove where we took too many outside shots, we weren't patient," Roberts said. "They came out in a zone and that really slowed us down." State did not get a field goal from 9:00 to 2:36 when Harper rattled in a jumper.
It was only all-out effort on both defense and the backboards that kept the home team in contention, as Alabama got off just 20 official shots in 20 minutes. Nine were good, along with 6-of-7 foul shooting, giving the Tide a 26-22 margin at intermission. This despite State taking 17 more field-goal attempts, though given the lack of outside-accuracy this was no problem.
"We knew they were going to zone us a bunch," Stansbury said. "I just didn't know we'd go 0-12 the first half and 5-for-28 with Frazier and Shane in the game. Normally one of them stretches things out enough that you can make shots inside, we didn't do that today." Roberts took only two field-goal attempts in the whole half, one of them a trey-try, though two made buckets were waved off on floor-fouls. Afterwards Stansbury wondered if the 7-0 Campbell would have changed the course of things. "It's obvious we could have used him some, especially inside that zone because that's where he's best. It forced us to play small."
Alabama still led by seven when State finally got a long shot to drop, as Frazier took a kickout from guard Gary Ervin and nailed it at 17:51. A trip later he did it again, and when Power pulled up on a break and stuck his first threeball the score was tied 32-32. "We got some momentum going with that," Power said. But not enough, even though baskets by Harper and Power gave State the lead for the first time since 17:42 of the opening half.
Because after Davis tied the score 36-all Harper missed a forced jumper. Slater had a good layup roll out and a bad shot clank. "A lot of guys got caught up in the moment and you get forced into taking shots that you wouldn't normally take," Harper said. Steele converted on a driving layup and Alabama would never trail again, though the Dogs did tie things up three more times…the last after a Harper steal set up Slater's driving basket at 2:40.
"It was just rough to lose like that," Harper said, "but all in all the team played hard. I'm not taking anything away from Alabama, they made critical shots."
While for their part the Bulldogs did not make enough shots of any sort, despite the lopsided number of attempts. "That gave them the advantage of staying in the zone and really sinking in on the inside," said Roberts. Alabama was also able to survive center Jermareo Davidson fouling out with two points (and 11 rebounds) and four fouls on Davis.
Power, devastated in defeat, tried to take the biggest portion of blame. "I didn't knock down enough shots and Frazier didn't knock down enough shots, that was the difference," he said. The two senior shooters were a combined 4-of-19 at the arc and 9-of-35 overall, offsetting everything else State could do this day. "We played great defense, the team rebounded. Harper was unbelievable, Lawrence played great like he always does. It came down to knocking down shots."
Roberts did get 15 points, seven at the stripe, but took just nine official shots. He did get his 18th ‘double-double' of the year with 11 rebounds. Harper had 14 points, ten in the first half, and Power and Frazier did end up with 13 and 10 in their homecourt finale.
It was a tough way to go. "I can't live with going 5-for-19," Power said, though he gave credit where it was due, too. "I told Coach (Mark) Gottfried after the game make them believe that you guys have as good a shot at the Final Four as anybody in this country."
"I'm proud of our kids' effort," Stansbury said, but effort wasn't enough this time. Nor was defending and rebounding. "You can sum it up any way you want," the coach said. "When you go 5-of-28 (at the arc) it's difficult. "Go 7-of-28 and you win the game."
The Bulldogs do have more chances to win games this season, starting this coming Thursday in the SEC Tournament. State, #3 seed from the Western Division, plays East #6 Georgia at 3:15ET in the first round at the Georgia Dome. Alabama has a first-day bye and will face the winner of Thursday's Mississippi-South Carolina game.