And this was the worst one yet. "It was a slap in the face to us," senior guard Jamall Edmondson, as State lost on the homecourt by the largest margin since a 24-point defeat—also by Tennessee—in 1998. It was thus the worst home loss ever for Coach Rick Stansbury, who didn't care so much about history as the current state of State.
"For the first time all year that team ripped us," Stansbury said. "They beat us in every category possible to get beat in."
Well, not exactly. The Bulldogs did end with a modest advantage on the backboards and twice as many offensive rebounds. They also had a 5-to-1 advantage in blocks. State even outscored the visitors at the foul line. Still Stansbury was essentially accurate; Tennessee won where it mattered.
The Vols shot 52% from the field, struck for nine three-point baskets, and were consistent at the foul line in an excellent offensive showing. "They knocked down shots," junior guard Dietric Slater said. "Open shots, somebody in their face, with time running out. They knocked down all the important shots."
The most meaningful shots came from guard C.J. Watson, who sliced up State's attempts at defense all evening. Watson was an unconscious 8-of-10 from the field and 3-of-4 at the arc, finishing with a game-best 19 points. For good measure the senior dealt out five assists and stole the ball four times.
"He's the best point guard in the league," Stansbury said. "He can push it down your throat, and they spread the wings out with great shooters." Guards Stanley Asumnu and JaJuan Smith came off the bench for 12 and 11 points respectively, which allowed starter Chris Lofton to have a relatively quiet evening with just eight points and a couple of treys. "They've got a great rhythm on that team, great guard play," Stansbury noted. "Those guys are very difficult to defend."
Especially with forward/guard Andre Patterson losing his defender for 13 more points to go with a game-high 11 rebounds. And he dished out five more assists, reflecting not just his team's overall accuracy but the ease of ball-movement against a befuddled Bulldog squad.
"We had trouble defending their flex offense," said Edmondson. "They got a lot of open layups from that."
Contributing to State's uncertainty on defense was a revamped lineup just for this game. With MSU by-far the SEC's worst turnover team, Stansbury pulled 7-2 center Wesley Morgan for the first time all season and went with a four-guard lineup of his own. In one sense the tactic paid off, for a while, as the Dogs threw the ball away just six times in the first half.
But they also trailed 44-29 at the break, showing not much else went right with this particular plan. "We went small just to handle the ball against pressure," Stansbury said. "That part worked, the other part didn't. We were very inefficient in halfcourt offense." The Bulldogs shot under 30% in the first half and 33% for the entire evening.
Team accuracy wasn't helped by limiting the number of chances for the one big Dog in the starting lineup. Sophomore forward-turned-center Charles Rhodes took only two shots the first half, and while he finished with 15 points almost half that came from the foul line and long after Tennessee got the game in their control. State tried for a while to get Rhodes the ball, but the Vols weren't making it easy.
"They fronted him with a man behind most of the time, and when he touched it somebody doubled," Edmondson said. As a consequence the four-guard lineup settled for outside shots too early and far too often, connecting on just 2-of-14 attempts from the arc in the first half and 5-of-27 for the game. Certainly State wasn't going to beat Tennessee at their own game.
"We weren't knocking down shot," starting guard Reginald Delk said. "We were rushing the shot, they played really good defense and upped the tempo which made us speed up shots." Worse, as soon as a Dog fired at least one Vol was en route to the other goal and beating an uncertain defense. "It was the first time in that lineup so we were confused in transition," Edmondson said. "We didn't know whether to pick up the man or not."
The furious pace let Tennessee jump to a 12-5 lead on 6-of-9 shooting. State had also taken nine shots but only made a pair, and this before the Volunteers even tried to put on full-court pressure. When they finally did it promptly produced a turnover, basket, and MSU timeout at 14:01. State gained some poise during the break, as a rebound basket by forward Jamont Gordon was followed by a trey from Edmondson, and Rhodes canned free throws. When Gordon converted a steal into a layup the Bulldogs had evened the score at 14-14.
If that fazed the Vols in the least it didn't show. Because they responded with seven consecutive points, including a pullup-three from Lofton, to regain control. A corner-trey from Smith and turnover layup from Watson pushed the margin into double-digits by 8:18. When Gordon interrupted another run with a tip-in basket, the Vols responded with a Watson three-pointer and spinning jumper by Patterson. Asumnu delivered a pair of baskets, around a lone free throw from Goodridge, to explode the margin to 35-19.
The Bulldogs did get within ten, twice, with a 39-29 count and 99 seconds to halftime. That was long enough for the Vols to get a couple of free throws after Slater rushed a long miss, then a trey by Smith right at the buzzer to take a 44-29 intermission advantage. And two fast baskets into the next half it was a 19-point game.
UT pressure picked up even more, with the Dogs losing consecutive in-bounds passes that became five easy points. At 13:25 backup forward Ryan Childress was left alone in a corner and snapped the twine for a trey and, for the first time a 20-point spread at 63-43. There was still 13:33 left on the clock but this game was definitely over with. The Vol lead would thrice reach 25 points and State never get closer than 18.
Edmondson and Gordon were both 5-of-13 from the field and matched Rhodes' 15 points. The other seven Dogs who saw game-minutes combined for 20 points on 7-of-30 shooting. "Right now that bench is all-messed-up," Stansbury said. "It was as bad as a rhythm as we've had, and it was really bad in halfcourt tonight."
The Bulldogs had best get better soon because the schedule sends them back on the SEC road for a Saturday meeting with Alabama. The Crimson Tide should be rested, too, having had the midweek off. Not that State can care how things are with the opposition at the moment. "We've just got to come together and be ready to play," Edmondson said.
"Nervous is not the word," said Stansbury, asked about taking a team on a five-game skid into a hostile setting. "It's just understanding our team, we're not very good right now. We have to find a way to get better whether we re it's at home or on the road."