What Stansbury saw was both the lost game and scores, so to speak, of lost chances. Whether it was after storming back with a 14-0 run to regain a lead, or coming downcourt in the waning minutes with multiple chances to tie or lead and salvage the road trip, his Bulldogs failed to cash in on opportunities.
"You have to be more efficient when that game's on the line. And we weren't that today."
Nor was Alabama particularly, since both sides shot under 35% and turned the ball over whether forced or not. Efficiency was not on either bench this day. But the home-team Tide had just a little more margin for errors thanks to a bit better defense…and at times a lot more intensity. Whether going after missed shots or loose balls Alabama came out just ahead, just often enough.
Even then, "We still should have won," Bulldog point guard Dee Bost said. "The ball didn't bounce our way." If Bost meant how the ball bounced off both goals over 68% of the time it was shot by a Bulldog, he was correct. But 31.7% overall in-accuracy wasn't what doomed State. It was a 2-of-18 afternoon from the arc, by the team that is leading the league in perimeter punch. Stansbury's shooters missed their first 11 long shots and did not get a trey to drop until 9:12 of the second half. The other came a minute later and by no coincidence that was when the Bulldogs took their short-lived lead.
"Shooting is shooting," shrugged Stansbury. "That's part of the game." Except State wasn't playing their style of shooting game very often either, thanks to rambling and often gambling Alabama man-defense. "They rotated on us and sped us up," admitted Bost who was 0-of-4 at the arc but also had to give up the ball earlier in set plays than planned. Tide guards Anthony Brock and Mikhail Torrance were able to pressure State on the perimeter like few squads could or would, and shackle leading shooter/scorer Ravern Johnson into only two trey-tries in 26 frustrating minutes. Neither hit as Johnson, previously on pace to set the MSU record for season-threes, was shut out there the first time this winter.
Stewart tried to pick up the slack and was 1-of-7, while Phil Turner was 1-of-3 off the bench. "That's the way the ball falls sometimes," said Stewart who still led MSU with 13 points. "But we're still in the game, you have to give us credit for that." Bost and Johnson both had 10 points.
Center Jarvis Varnado didn't get to double-digits though, held to nine points on 4-of-14 shooting. He also fouled-out with six seconds left, his first disqualification in 28 games…or since his last previous trip to Coleman Coliseum. Alabama didn't back down on defending the big Dog either. "I just missed shots, that's all," he said. "I just missed shots." But on the other end Tide front-court men generally avoided Varnado who blocked four shots outright and influenced at least twice that many more no-chance attempts. Meanwhile Alabama got 20 points from Torrance with four treys, or twice as many as the whole MSU team. In fact it was his early pair of longballs that gave the home team a quick lift en route to the upset and surprised State defenders. Forward JaMychal Green was under 50% shooting himself but worked hard for 18 points, a third of that from the foul line, with nine rebounds. Alabama won the battle of the boards with big help from Tony Mitchell who chased down a dozen caroms.
Despite all this Stansbury, ticking-off the woeful individual shooting stats, saw something of a success in just having a chance to come out on top. "It's still a one-point game with 30 seconds to go," he said. "Offensively we left way to many plays on the court. Broken plays that you've got to finish. We let that pressure speed us up too much and not finish going to the hole."
Initially both clubs went to the goal hard, with Alabama doing it better for two driving buckets that had State sagging back inside somewhat. This opened a seam on the left wing for Torrance to pop that quick pair of treys and stake his team to a 12-2 lead. "On the road you can't start out slow, that's what we did," Bost said.
Both defenses asserted themselves for a stretch that, compounded with a series of miscues that saw more turnovers—mostly on legitimate travel calls—than baskets or even well-selected shots. State missed nine-straight attempts until a Bost steal, layup and foul for three points. Stansbury also switched to a zone that, along with timid Tide moves around Varnado, kept Alabama from getting entirely away. "That was a good coaching move," said Stewart of changing defensive looks. But the Bulldogs were unable to find any sort of cohesion on the offensive end and fell behind 24-13 by 7:36. They also backed up their status as the NCAA's least-fouling bunch because Alabama shot its first free throws until 8:26 and Green missed both.
It took F Kodi Augustus breaking loose first for a dunk and then a putback of Varnado's rim-out to get his team going. Bost free throws and a short flip by Varnado made it a two-point margin, then the Dogs had two chances to tie it up. Osby and Bost both missed, so Alabama was able to get into the locker room with a 27-26 lead.
"We didn't think we could play any worse offensively," Stansbury said. "But that was before we saw the second half."
Actually State opened the period by taking a lead on a Bost breakaway and Stewart free throws. Alabama got a handle on the Bulldog zone though as first Anthony Brock and then Torrance found 45-degree angles on opposite sides. This from the team that had the fewest treys made or tried in the SEC coming into the weekend. Though, Stewart said, "We know they've got shooters. Every game they've played they've been close so we weren't surprised by that."
Even when Stansbury went back man Alabama hustled harder and smarter stretching their lead to 46-34 at 11:20. State reverted to zone, a wider one this time—"We weren't doing too well in man," said Stewart—that this time threw the Tide off their stride. On the other end it was substitute F Romero Osby lighting a spark with a driving score and rebound bucket. And at long last a long ball dropped as Turner did the honors from waaay out top. He missed another but Stewart did not, giving the Bulldogs that two-point lead. Briefly, as Green's free throws evened it at 7:18.
All this was just setting State and Stansbury up for a frustrating finish, or rather failure to finish. "We have three trips in a row where we have opportunities to finish some things, and we don't in half-court offense," the coach said. That span allowed Alabama, which was crashing the glass to prevent second chances, to steady their own offense. And just before the 5:00 mark Green had the ball in the lane, drew defenders his way, and kicked over to an open Brock on the right for three. Ninety seconds later it was Torrance alone on the other wing sticking for a 56-49 scoreboard.
And still State wasn't done, despite missing seven-straight shots. A strip-and-break by Stewart sparked one last rally and when Johnson rebounded and scored the Dogs were back within one…and soon with the ball again as Turner came up with yet another fumble. Bost gave it his best try on a drive at the rack and there was contact, mostly from Green swatting everything in reach. "It didn't get blocked, the dude smacked my arm," Bost said. "But the ref looked directly at me and he was like ‘nah, no foul'."
"Life on the road, you're not going to get any close calls," said Stansbury.
Torrance made the fast-foul free throws for the three-point cushion. Next time down it was Johnson missing a long trey-try, Turner boarding-and-scoring, and Brock going to the line at 0:17. Down 60-57, instead of forcing a longball Bost drove baseline to suck in support and kicked into the other corner, only to have Stewart step on the line with seven ticks left. "If they collapsed we were going to get a three," Stewart said. "My foot kind of slipped and I was falling-back as he threw it to me." Alabama got the ball in to Green for the clinching free throws.
Alabama actually had more turnovers, 13 to 11, but over twice as many assists. The Bulldogs basically let the Tide's perimeter pressure take the ball out of Bost's hands and create more one-on-one moves at the goal than Stansbury wanted in this particular matchup. "They pressured us and we made a lot of quick shots," said Varnado. "You have to do better than that."
"We had too many times other people initiated the offense," Stansbury stressed, also the lack of controlled drives causing a frenzied style that got neither goals nor fouls. "Empty plays," he called them. Yet for all those, despite the worst shooting game of the season, deserving or not, Mississippi State was only a made-trey in either half from a different development.
"Two for 18," said Stansbury. "Two for 18. And still it's a one-point game with 30 seconds to go."
The Bulldogs remain on the SEC West road for a Thursday evening game (8:00) at Arkansas.