"We've got to learn how to play hard for both halves," said a frustrated forward Charles Rhodes.
Alabama improved to 11-7 overall and 4-2 SEC, taking sole possession of second place in the Western Division. The Bulldogs fell to 11-9 and at 1-6 SEC are now, thanks to Auburn's win over Georgia, alone at the bottom of both the West and the overall league standings.
For most of the second half Mississippi State did play hard and reasonably well, and made a real contest out of what had been very close to a runaway rout for the host Crimson Tide. After trailing by as much as 15 points in the first period the Bulldogs changed their offense, tightened up the defense, and played as a cohesive club for the first time in weeks. No wonder they had mixed feelings afterwards.
"We don't want to lose," said Edmondson. "But we feel kind of positive coming out of this game. We're learning from our mistakes now."
The issue with Coach Rick Stansbury was that his team still made the sorts of mistakes that kept them from sustaining the comeback and stealing a Western road win. "Don't accept this, don't like this, don't get used to it," he cautioned any Dog looking at the loss as a moral success.
Of course after a brutal first half it was only natural for State players to feel a bit better about themselves following their second-half resurgence. Alabama beat up on the Bulldogs for the opening 17 minutes and seemed in complete control, as their gifted frontcourt of center Jermareo Davidson and forwards Richard Hendrix and Evan Brock overpowered the smaller State lineup at each end of the floor. Even after a change in tactics let the Dogs shave a few baskets off the intermission margin it was still a 31-21 score starting the last period.
"Coach said they're kicking our butt and we need to play hard," said guard/forward Jamont Gordon. "We needed to come out and make it decent."
They did better than that. Stansbury put the same four-guard lineup on court as had begun the game, yet it certainly looked like a whole new team as State ran off ten unanswered points. Gordon drove for one basket, guard Dietric Slater hit a jumper ruled a three-pointer (though a toe certainly seemed touching the arc), and guard Reginald Delk followed with a trey of his own. When Rhodes powered for a bucket at 17:40 the score was suddenly even at 31-31 and Alabama was calling for time.
Hendrix broke the tie with five quick points but the visitors weren't finished as guard Richard Delk beat the full-court press for a layup and Rhodes scored on both a bankshot and a rebound. And when Alabama briefly switched to man-to-man, Edmondson spun off his defender to hit a moving trey at 7:14 that put State up 48-47. It was their only lead of the evening.
And it didn't last long, as Tide wingman Jean Felix got a hanging jumper to drop the right way. Twenty seconds later he coaxed a turnover from Reginald Delk, got the foul and hit both chances at 6:17. State would only get within a point from then on, as Gordon finished an end-to-end drive. Because after Hendrix made one free throw Reginald Delk rushed his trey-try. Felix made it hurt by draining a trey at 5:16.
The Bulldogs had made it decent, alright. They could not make it count. "Sometimes we beat ourselves," said Rhodes. Because after Edmondson hit for three and a 55-52 score, an airball by Felix was rebounded and scored by Hendrix. A minute later Hendrix was in the right place at the right time again, taking a Ron Steele miss and dunking it at 3:13. With the score 59-53 it was just a matter of Alabama making more free throws and the Bulldogs missing forced threes, which both sides did.
Hendrix had another phenomenal freshman game, leading everyone with his 22 points and 16 rebounds. Ten of those boards were on the offensive end and figured very much in Alabama's 19-6 advantage in second-chance points. Davidson had a quiet second half but still managed 14 points while Brock added nine. Steele finished with 11 points and played 39 minute minutes, going the whole second half without a rest.
Gordon led State with 18 points, though he was 0-of-4 at the arc, and with eight rebounds. Edmondson collected three treys and 13 points while Rhodes had to battle for all his dozen points and seven rebounds before fouling out at 1:11. He had played five minutes with four fouls but it cramped his efforts at each end, and the sophomore was most unhappy with the three men in striped shirts.
"I think we should have got to the free-throw line more, but that's how it goes sometimes," Rhodes said. "We could have got more calls." In fact, while the Bulldogs were 5-of-13 at the charity stripe and Rhodes had only one attempt in 32 minutes, the home team was 25-of-40. Even allowing for late-game fouls, the difference of 23 personals on MSU to a dozen Alabama whistles was a point of some contention.
Stansbury tried to avoid being drawn into the topic too deeply. "Naturally they're a bigger team, we were playing small so some of that is to be expected. When you go on the road you expect that." Still, he added, "That's a huge difference, 40 to 13."
There was definitely a difference in how the Bulldogs played on offense each half. Alabama's extended 2-3 zone practically froze State in place for over 15 minutes, as MSU guards ran back-and-forth around the perimeter and ran down the shot clock before pumping something up. State missed 15 of their first 19 shots of all sorts, and were 1-of-8 at the arc in the first half.
"We were doing it to ourselves, really," said Gordon, "just standing on the perimeter and not making their defense work." If not for eight hard points from Rhodes the game would have been settled by halftime, as Hendrix and Davidson were effective under the goal and even better at the stripe. The Tide had ten free points by the break and led by as much as 30-15 with 2:26 left.
But late in the period Stansbury told Gordon to go to the baseline, then pop into the middle of the zone. That produced six quick points for the freshman, then Rhodes dunked a miss and hooked in a shot of his own to cut the halftime deficit to ten. "We attacked the basket," Stansbury explained. "Charles was a force inside, and we made some shots in transition. And we stopped them."
"They had a chance to blow us out but we closed the gap a little bit," Edmondson said.
Still even after Mississippi State closed the gap entirely and even went ahead the advantage lasted just 35 seconds. The Bulldogs did somehow out-shoot Alabama for the game, 41.4 to 38.0, but the Tide more than offset this with those putback baskets. Too many of State's turnovers came in crunch-time, too. And, of course, there were all those undefended free shots. No wonder some Dogs were still fuming. "From my point of view, it had to be the calls and the turnovers," said Rhodes. "We played hard and we played good."
Just not good enough, long enough. Stansbury was particularly unhappy that while Alabama, as expected, used only seven players all game, the two-man Tide bench outscored four Bulldog backups 9-3.
Now Mississippi State has a long uphill fight just to get out of the SEC cellar, and after six consecutive losses even a solid road effort is small consolation. "But we understand our situation," Stansbury said. "The way to get through it is work harder and fight through it.
"There were many times I looked out there and we had four freshmen and a sophomore on the court. They made mistakes, hopefully they'll learn from them, and next time in that situation they won't make as many."