State is still locked into the #1 West seed, and despite losses to Auburn and Tennessee in the last week of the regular season shares the Division title with Ole Miss. It is the seventh West championship for MSU, but no nets were cut down this time. Even ceremonies celebrating the record-setting careers of Stewart and center Jarvis Varnado were dimmed in retrospect. Not that Coach Rick Stansbury thought the pre-game had any impact on the real game.
"I don't want to blame it on that or make no excuse or whatever. But we were different tonight than I've ever seen our basketball team. For whatever reason."
Actually the Bulldogs knew one very obvious reason Tennessee had such an unexpectedly easy evening of it. "Our shots weren't falling. Simple," said junior forward Kodi Augustus. "Our shots weren't falling. And we took a few bad shots but I don't think it was anything with the other team, our shots weren't falling. And their's were."
Augustus, the only Dog who had anything like a decent offensive game with 15 points, had a point. The Vols made exactly half their 60 total attempts, shooting 50% in each half for that matter. This despite a poor 3-of-16 evening on trey-tries. Though, this meant Tennessee made good on 62% of shots taken inside the arc, against a MSU defense that usually can make life hard in the paint. Not this time.
"They scored every way they could early, killed us in the paint, and made shots," said Stansbury. "We never really got it going all night." Not at all as State shot a numbing 24% in the first half and 34% for the game. The Bulldogs did make nine treys, their typical output, but needed 32 attempts to do so. And while Tennessee defended well, they weren't as dominating as the percentages hinted. As noted by Augustus, it was a matter of MSU missing and the Vols making what they were taking around the rim.
"They got shots they wanted and things that are their strengths," point guard Dee Bost said. "They took advantage of their strengths and we couldn't stop them. They played loose."
Maybe so but UT Coach Bruce Pearl thought his team was more intense than that. "We obviously took that one seriously. There wasn't any overlooking a team like Mississippi State," he said. "This game is really going to help our seeding, this could move us an entire line." In the NCAA bracket, he meant, something the Volunteers can take for granted.
Yet the very fact State came in knowing this was by any measure a must-win and performed so listlessly from the tip was utterly unexpected. "We weren't ready tonight," Varnado said. "They were." And proved it by bolting to a 17-0 lead at 14:25, with eleven combined points from guard Scotty Hopson and forward J.P. Prince.
"I thought I needed to help our team's confidence by coming out boom-boom-boom with some quick hitters," Pearl said. "We decided to just come out aggressively a little bit more. And they missed a couple of shots, all of a sudden you look at the scoreboard and it's 17."
On the other bench to his complete shock Stansbury saw a team he called "motionless." The coach likely meant ‘emotionless' but either was just as accurate as the Bulldog defense was nearly flat-footed.
"I don't have the answer to it. Our teams haven't done that," Stansbury said. "You would think think Senior Night, what we were playing for, wouldn't be the night it happened. But it happened."
What happened were a dozen empty Dog possessions to begin; seven missed shots, two missed free throws, and four turnovers. "It happened so quick, we couldn't stop it," Stansbury said. "I called two times-out, there was another timeout, we couldn't stop them. It's like we were totally out of synch. We panicked, got poor shots, nothing good." Not until sub-guard Phil Turner got loose for an inbound layup at 13:50 did the Dogs get on their own scoreboard. State loyalists couldn't even scream, much, at officiating as the home team wasn't called for a foul until 12:09.
Only some subbing by the Vols, as well as their keeping the pace going full-tilt even as the misses began kept this from becoming a complete blowout. Augustus tried to get something like momentum turned around with his trey, and a three-point play from Bost helped State draw back within 11 points…which would become a familiar deficit this evening. Tennessee ran out the half with six-straight points including a rebound-flip by Cameron Tatum that rolled in after the buzzer for a 38-21 intermission margin. "That sort of typified the hunger we played with tonight," Pearl said.
Leading State scorer guard Ravern Johnson, shut out the whole first half, corrected that with a trey on the first shot of the new period. Augustus threw in his own three and a Johnson putback had the Bulldogs within 11. Hopson, a one-time MSU commitment who spurned them for Tennessee, answered with two treys in three tries. They cycle would run a couple more times with State getting within 11 and the Volunteers responding in turn.
"They just kept getting leak-out layups and we took bad shots, me myself," Bost said. "And the ball didn't bounce our way today."
Yet it wasn't quite a done deal and when sub-forward Romero Osby popped a short jumper the Bulldogs were within 53-44 with half-a-half still to rally. If the Vols were rattled it didn't show as Prince matched Osby's bucket, and after Stewart was blocked in one lane Tatum sailed above the other one for a lob-dunk. By seven minutes the margin was back to 17 points and some home folk were looking for an early departure.
"You want to take on possession at a time but at times I thought we panicked a little, shot a few quick threes," Stewart said.
Even when Prince picked up a fourth at 5:24, and Turner hit a longball for a 63-52 difference, there were no Senior Night heroics remaining. Bost tried drawing a charge in the open court and earned a blocking foul, with Stansbury talked back to his bench by a ref. A tip-in by big Brian Williams and Tatum's burst by a flat-footed Varnado made it a 15-point lead again. Guard Bobby Maze got to do a lot of dribbling in the last 90 seconds as the clock expired on State. And, most believe, on their NCAA at-large hopes.
Varnado and Bost both had 11 points and Stewart six in his final home game. Five Vols scored double-digits led by Prince's 16 and 14 from Hopson. Williams and Maze had ten point each and Williams' 13 boards were just about the total difference in rebounds, 46 to 30 favoring the Vols. Tatum came off the UT bench for ten points, which helped offset a one-point night for forward Wayne Chism.
"I think our depth was a factor in that they didn't have the depth to expend on a significant second half rally," Pearl said. "Brian Williams was a huge factor on the boards and his ball-screen coverage, just showing and getting back to Jarvis. J.P. Prince played like a senior, like his life depended on it." The UT coach could justifiably talk about lack of depth as mid-season he was playing with only six Vols and still won RPI games.
"Their best player on the inside scores one point," Stansbury said. "It's all those other cats. Williams had eight rebounds at halftime and gets 13. I thought Prince played well, he's a guy that can't shoot and gets 16 for them. They beat us in every facet."
As if to compound a lost evening, there was a minor verbal confrontation in front of the MSU bench as Tennessee players left the floor apparently involving Maze and Williams on one side and non-playing Bulldog Renardo Sidney on the other. It ended with Chism being pushed out of a crowd, though neither coach commented on the incident other than a "The scoreboard does the talking," from Stansbury. Pearl did say he took no pleasure in denying a league member a much-needed win, and that this game in no way offset last year's result in the SEC tournament title game. Nor does it matter this season.
"To get eleven wins in the league is really big," Pearl said. "That was the best basketball we've played, we've won five of our last six. We certainly closed the regular season very well."
Which is exactly what the Dogs didn't do. Stansbury did attempt to play-up another West Division championship but even that was muted with thoughts of how the bigger NCAA picture looks now. "Right now it's a bittersweet pill because there was a lot more we're playing for."
Of course a year ago at this time the '09 Bulldogs went to the SEC Tournament knowing they needed to at least reach the finals and probably win the whole thing to gain automatic NCAA entry. Which they did, and even if the stay was short the memory will be applied often in the coming days. And this year in Nashville it will only require three wins, not four as in Tampa. State will play Friday evening against the winner of Florida-Auburn.
"But we have to go and win it and get in the tournament," said Augustus. "We just have to pick it up and play better."