Mississippi State left Mobile 5-5. The loss was State's first in 11 meetings with South Alabama.
"Kind of the same-old for our team," Coach Rick Stansbury said. "Except this time we had more separation." As in, a 13-point lead as the clock wound inside the ten-minute mark; and a 58-49 margin after a Charles Rhodes free throw at 6:45. Yet after a trio of other lost-leads and lost-games there was a sense of awful inevitability that the other team was going to come back again. The Jaguars did, scoring 13 unanswered points. Even when State pulled off a mini-rally of its own to tie it up 67-67 with 0:43 remaining the other team was better able to cope with clutch-time pressures.
"There's something not there right now," said Stansbury. "But we collapse, and I haven't figured out why."
The ‘how' was much easier to explain. Or better yet the ‘who' as in Demetric Bennett. The Jaguar guard put on an amazing home-court show, scoring his team's first 20 points, 25 total in the first half, and 39 before he was done. It was the fifth-best effort ever by a Jaguar, and more noteworthy than his scoring was his 14-of-17 shooting…with a perfect six-for-six from the three-point arc.
"He was hot tonight, very hot," said Hansbrough, one of many Dogs who tried through the game to keep Bennett from scoring. "I don't think he's ever been hot like that. I don't think it was the way we were guarding him, I think it's just our bad luck."
Bennett actually was held in-check most of the second half. Fortunately for South Alabama some teammates filled in the void, with guard Daon Merritt scoring 14 points with four treys and forward DeAndre Coleman adding nine points with 12 rebounds. They were key to keeping the Bulldogs from getting farther ahead than they did in the last half while Bennett wasn't getting shots to take and make.
Guard Phil Turner, making his first start, ended up top Dog in scoring with 17 points and four treys while Hansbrough had 16 points and four threes of his own. Rhodes did not start, having been late for a team breakfast, but did get enough minutes and shots for ten points.
It wasn't enough. "Give South Alabama a lot of credit," Stansbury said. "They found a way to step up and make shots and make plays when they had to." Whereas his own team found ways to let another lead and game slip away. Even a big Bennett night needn't have meant defeat, the coach thought. "We had no answer for Bennett, but we extended the lead with him having a career night. One guy is not going to beat you."
Longballs by Barry Stewart and Turner got MSU's offense started, but guard Jamont Gordon picked up a quick pair of charging fouls and was very fortunate not to draw a third such. Rhodes was subbed-in on a deadball and immediately converted a Stewart feed into a dunk and 13-5 Bulldog lead that had South Alabama stopping play at 13:28.
Less than two minutes later it was a 15-13 game as Bennett simply took over. He scored a three-point play, a three-point shot, and another layup at 11:49. He did miss a free throw while State got the regular starting lineup in. But when Bennett rattled in another trey, then stuck a turnaround jumper the Jaguars had the lead 20-18 at eight minutes. Or around that as the clocks froze up for a fourth time.
"I just wanted to come out and get this victory," said Bennett. "The first half I was feeling pretty good. We had a lot of key threes."
MSU's answer came in three-point contributions by Hansbrough and Turner to regain the lead. And it was USA's Coleman who finally ‘snapped' Bennett's amazing string with a putback at 4:33. Bennett did get five more points before the break, including free throws to cut State's lead to 32-30. The most amazing first-half fact was that there were 16 Jaguar shots NOT taken by Bennett, who was 9-of-11 with four treys.
South Alabama went back ahead 35-34 on a Merritt threeball, but an offensive foul drew such protest from Coach Ronnie Arrow that he earned a technical. Hansbrough's free throws gave State another lead, and center Jarvis Varnado scored on a goaltended flip and a loose-ball dunk. Rhodes returned and instantly netted a three-point play but the next trip down took a finger to the eye and sat.
His absence didn't slow the Dog assault that stretched the lead out to 57-44 after Turner sank the longshot. When the Dogs turned the ball over it didn't seem to matter much, yet that was the start of the crucial stretch. "From that point on we kind of collapsed," Stansbury said. Without much of a push, either, as State did the damage to itself with hurried shots, reckless passes, and needlessly forced play. Even though the Jaguars went three minutes without a basket themselves, they were not falling farther behind either.
"We make turnovers, offensive fouls, at bad times we miss free throws," Hansbrough said. The Dogs also missed unnecessary three-pointers, particularly Gordon who had a career-worst night shooting 1-of-14.
Bennett had just two points through 14 minutes of the final half, before sticking a bomb and another jumper that suddenly had USA within one. After Rhodes turned it over on a charge, Merritt stood alone behind the arc for a kick-out pass and stick-in three that put the home team up.
As Gordon clanked consecutive longs shots the Jags went up 62-58. Hansbrough kept his team in range with a pair of three-shots, when the Dogs took time to run an offense, and after Turner stripped Bennett he was able to find Hansbrough for a snowbird and 67-66 Jag lead going into the last minute. Yet when fouled Gordon only made one of his chances, tying the tally. And after a rebound basket by Douglas, Rhodes missed both his free throws. Bennett didn't at 10.5 seconds to seal the victory. South Alabama, held to 37% shooting in the first half despite Bennett's heroics, was good on 62% in the winning period.
Bennett admitted to some extra motivation for this home game. "A SEC team is supposed to be a better team, we're always an underdog. I felt our guys had something to prove."
Varnado fouled out in the final minute after blocking six shots to go with nine points and ten rebounds. Gordon did hit enough free throws for seven total points to go with 13 rebounds, matching his career-best boards. But the Bulldogs were a collective 12-of-24 at the stripe (USA was just 9-of-21). "That's never a good stat on the road when you're battling," Stansbury said.
Now the Bulldogs have bigger battles immediately ahead as a three-game road swing continues. State will play Wednesday at Loyola-Marymount of California, and stop over at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi on the return. Things have to improve if there is to be any good feelings going into the brief Christmas break.
"We've been up in four games like that with the lead," Hansbrough said. "We've got to get smarter and make better decision when we get squeezed like that."