Mississippi State’s Craig Sword gashed the Vols from the field (7 of 8), from 3-point range (4 of 5) and from the foul line (8 of 10) in a 26-point performance that sparked the Bulldogs to a 71-66 victory.
The Bulldogs improve to 11-11 overall and 4-5 in SEC play. The Vols slip to 13-8 overall and 5-4 in conference action.
Sword was recovering from back surgery when the Vols and Bulldogs met Jan. 7 in Starkville, attempting just two field goals in a 61-47 Tennessee romp. Unfortunately for the Big Orange, he was feeling no pain prior to Tuesday night’s rematch.
"It's a day-to-day process with him,” Mississippi State coach Rick Ray said. “Sometimes he doesn't practice. Sometimes we don't know if he's going to be able to go in games until he gets out there and warms up.”
Sword warmed up well, then got downright hot once the game started. He drained his first four field-goal attempts (one a 3-pointer) in leading State to a 32-30 halftime lead. His confidence soaring, he was nearly unstoppable thereafter – producing 16 second-half points, eight coming from the foul line.
When Sword wasn’t riddling Tennessee’s perimeter defense teammate Fred Thomas was doing the honors. He came off the bench to hit 5 of 7 field goals (4 of 5 from 3) and 6 of 7 foul shots in a 20-point performance that had Vol defenders shaking their heads.
“I don’t think we did a good job of getting to shooters early in the game, and they got their heads up,” Tennessee’s Josh Richardson said.
The Vols’ normally tight 1-3-1 defense forced 18 turnovers but failed miserably in other areas. The Bulldogs shot 55.9 percent (19 of 34) from the field and a mind-boggling 72.7 percent (8 of 11) from behind the arc.
Incredibly, Tennessee peeled off 20 offensive rebounds and attempted 26 more field goals (60 to 34) than Mississippi State. The Vols made six more field goals (25 to 19) but lost the game at the foul line. The Bulldogs made 25 of 35, Tennessee 11 of 17. Head coach Donnie Tyndall thought that was critical, noting that “they shoot 35 free throws and we have 17. That is the difference in the game."
The Vols’ inability to keep Mississippi State off the foul line was just one aspect of their defensive doldrums, however.
“Our defense was not what it needed to be,” Tyndall noted, adding: “(Allowing) 57 percent from the field is horrendous and 73 percent from 3 is bad.”
Richardson wasted a career-high 30 points in the loss. He was 11 of 19 from the field, 2 of 6 from 3 and 6 of 6 from the foul line. On a negative note, he committed seven of Tennessee’s 14 turnovers.
“I was just attacking,” he said. “My shot felt good but I would’ve liked to win more so.”
Kevin Punter, who chipped in 10 points for Tennessee, said the other Vols quickly recognized Richardson was rolling and attempted to exploit that.
“We tried to get him the ball little bit more because he had the hot hand,” Punter said. “I know I passed up one (open shot) because he was hitting a few. He was hitting tonight, and we kept feeding him the ball."
Vol teammate Armani Moore scored eight points and grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds, with nine of them coming off the offensive glass.
Derek Reese, normally the Vols’ starting center, was benched in favor of freshman Tariq Owens. Tyndall explained that Reese had a “horrible” practice on Monday, adding that guys normally play the way they practice. That appeared to be the case in this game as Reese went 0 for 6 from the field, finishing with 1 point in 25 relief minutes.
Reese’s worst moment came in the final minute. With Tennessee trailing 63-61, he got an offensive rebound and went up for a potential game-tying dunk. The ball rattled off the rim, however, and set up a breakaway three-point play by Fred Thomas that bumped MSU’s lead to 66-61 with 51.9 seconds left. Reese then missed a 3-pointer, and Mississippi State’s I.J. Ready sealed the deal with two free throws that widened the gap to 68-61 with 36.7 seconds left.
Though disappointed, Tyndall didn’t seem terribly surprised by the loss. His team simply didn’t play with the necessary levels of energy and focus required for it to win.
“Like I have said all year: Our team's margin of error is so small,” the coach said. “If we don't have the right mentality and we are not on razor's edge there is no one in our league we can beat. That is just where it is. Our guys didn't have that edge on the defensive end tonight.”
Tennessee’s offense didn’t have much of an edge, either. The Vols sank just 41.7 percent from the field, including a chilly 25 percent (5 of 20 from 3-point range.
“It’s kind of a common theme,” Tyndall said. “When you look at about half of our losses we shoot 25 percent or less from the 3. You go back to Alabama, Texas A&M, Marquette and now tonight. When you have a perimeter-oriented team like we do and you don't shoot it well from behind the arc obviously that hurts your team."