Yet the Dogs knew just how close they'd come to taking the league lead. "We were first in the West, they were first in the East, it was a national (TV) game," MSU forward Charles Rhodes said. "And they just came out on top."
"I didn't think we played our best game," said Bulldog Coach Rick Stansbury. "And you still have the ball with the chance to tie or win with 15 seconds left against what I keep saying is one of the best teams in the country." Indeed the Vols played up to their top-ten billing for all but about six minutes of the last half, the stretch when a barrage of State three-pointers turned a 17-point deficit into a 73-71 scoreboard. It took a travel-turnover by freshman guard Riley Benock, and after one UT free throw Gordon missing his forced trey-try-to-tie for the Vols to escape Starkville with their second road success of the week.
"That was a great game tonight," said Vol Coach Bruce Pearl. "Road wins are very difficult to come by in this league, I thought we certainly had some challenges tonight."
It was Mississippi State facing the greatest challenge, of just keeping competitive after falling behind 64-47 with 6:27 left in the evening. To that point the Bulldogs had not hit a long shot all half, whereas the Vols—the SEC's best offensive squad and sharpest perimeter shooters—had thrived from the arcs each period.
Yet as quickly as Tennessee opted to sit back on their margin with a zone defense, the Dogs found the range. Specifically, guards Barry Stewart and Gordon. Soph Stewart found an open space on the right wing where he could hit a trey. Then another, and another. When the Vols shifted over Gordon got free for a three-ball of his own…and two others at 3:18 and 2:16.
"Barry got us back into the game," said Gordon, "I came to him three-straight possessions and he knocked down some big shots. Then I came down and knocked down some big shots." For their part the Vols didn't bother working clock but tried to match longballs and missed, so that when Stewart struck again—this time from the left corner—it was a two-point difference and 40 seconds still to play.
"We made a push, showed what kind of character we have," said Stewart.
But having gotten it down to one more shot, the Bulldogs couldn't make it. Or even take it this time. UT's Duke Crews missed the front end of a 1-and-1 at 34 seconds and Gordon had the ball and another opportunity. "I thought about taking it to the hole, definitely about going and getting two points," said State's scoring leader. "But I found Riley wide-open." As in freshman Benock alone in the left corner. The rookie started to fire, checked up and tried to come out with the ball only to travel.
"I thought he had a shot," Stansbury said. "He's a young guy, you want him to step up and take them. It wasn't just a turn-down, it was a turnover. We got nothing out of it."
UT's Jordan Howell had to be fouled at 15.4 seconds for one made free throw and a three-point difference. This time Gordon did put up the pressure shot, which clanged and Howell ended up with the rebound. He converted both these chances to settle the issue.
"My seniors really stepped up big," Pearl said. "I think that experience was a real factor in this road win." Upperclassman Howell's free shots did provide victory's margin, but it was the 20 and 15 points of classmates Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith that built that lead State couldn't entirely erase. JaJuan Smith was particularly productive as 11 of his points came in the ‘third quarter' when the Vols were forging far out in front.
Yet it was other Vols who built a lead in the first place, or first half. Lofton was going to get his shots and points, as was J.Smith. Nor where the Bulldogs too surprised as forward Wayne Chism hit on a pair of three-pointers in the opening period. But when Tyler Smith sank two treys of his own, well…
"You find out why Tennessee is so good," Stansbury said. "They made plays when they had to make plays. They've got an incredible shooter in Lofton, and probably got some unexpected 3-pointers from Smith and Chism in the first half that stretched it out." The Vols ended up with 12 threes on 28 tries. And yet the Bulldogs, buoyed by the late barrage, ended up with ten treys made in 21 attempts. State even had a five-point advantage in free throws, though too typically the Dogs didn't maximize their chances—29 of ‘em—at the charity stripe.
"The difference was we probably gave them too many offensive rebounds that led to other plays," Stansbury said. In fact the shorter Vols whipped the bigger Bulldogs on the boards 42-32, and more meaningfully 18-8 in offensive rebounds. Those led to 18 second-chance points including a couple of emotion-draining treys after State had done well to prevent the first attempt on goal.
"The difference is those 18 rebounds and putbacks," Stansbury said, "which is a bad stat."
The half-time stats weren't so good for State either. Gordon and Stewart both hit their first trey-tries, then almost vanished offensively for the rest of the period. The Vols missed three-straight from long range but when Lofton began lofting his team quickly caught up, then Tyler Smith stuck back-to-back longballs with a Dog's paw in his face each time.
"When you've got Tyler Smith shooting three-pointers two-for-two, that's crazy," said Rhodes. Even after State's starters returned to court and caught up 19-18, Lofton was still around to cap a seven-point surge to regain the advantage. Howell and Chism (twice) got in on the perimeter fun for a 36-27 lead that held up at halftime. Less than two minutes into the next period it was 40-29 after JaJuan Smith scored off an inbounds feed, then hit a longball that had Stansbury calling time for a talk.
Whatever was said in that huddle must not have included guarding this Smith as next time down JaJuan made another triplet. Rhodes tried to keep his side within reach but was forced to settle for free throws as often as shots, few of those the power-move plays he thrives on. "They made me catch the ball outside and were doubling me, they wouldn't let me catch it in the post."
Ravern Johnson's fastbreak-and-foul had State within 52-43, yet the Volunteers got an even more difficult ‘three point' play as after Prince made one free throw his second miss was boarded and banked by teammate Brian Williams. More bizarre still, after Stewart made a first-free throw State's Elgin Bailey earned a technical for talking to a Vol where the ref could hear. So Lofton canned a pair of offsetting charity chippies before Stewart got to take and make his bonus. Plays like that pushed Tennessee in front by that 17-point margin.
Still, "We had a lot of time," said Rhodes. "We have great shooters so we never thought it was over. We were just hoping to hurry up and get on a run." Which the Dogs did only to come up short at the very end. Stewart came out game-high with 21 points, 18 of those from the arcs, while Gordon had 17 points and six assists. Rhodes worked for his 15 points, seven on free throws, with 10 rebounds for his second ‘double-double' of the week, sixth of the season.
While State's assist/turnover rate was still a negative number at 16-to-10, it wasn't nearly as bad as what Tennessee typically forces foes into. Nor did the Vols quite reach their average game's scoring output, with 41.3% shooting overall.
"They really didn't press as much as we'd seen and get it up-tempo," Stewart said. "The pace was alright, the scoring was in the range we like. We had it to where we wanted, we just didn't get shots falling that last few minutes of the game."
With losses this week at Arkansas and to Tennessee the Bulldogs no longer have sole possession of the West lead. Still they are only a step behind the Vols for first overall, and neck-and-neck for the Division. So the Dogs have no reason to concede anything to anyone with so much SEC season still in store. Besides, there is always the prospect of a rematch with Tennessee in Atlanta five weeks from now.
"I think tonight showed what we can do when we fight the whole game," said Gordon. "I don't think they got our best shot tonight."