By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – One thing you can’t do with the NCAA tournament on the line is volunteer a 17-0 lead to your opponent.
Mississippi State did just that Saturday, and No. 16 Tennessee was not about to look the gift dogs in the mouth.
MSU outscored the Volunteers by a point over the last 33 minutes, 47 seconds of play, but the first 6:13 – when State had four turnovers and the Vols hit 8-of-11 field goals – were too much to overcome.
Many of those in the Humphrey Coliseum crowd of 10,021 that arrived with visions of NCAA tournament glory left before the final horn in a 75-59 victory for Tennessee.
A win for MSU could have offset an upset loss at Auburn Wednesday night. It would not have guaranteed a tournament bid, but would have been the impressive win currently lacking from the Bulldogs’ resume.
Instead of closing strong, the Bulldogs’ two losses this week means they will share the Western Division title with Ole Miss, which rallied to beat Arkansas 65-63 in Fayetteville. MSU swept the regular season series and will be the West No. 1 seed in this week’s SEC tournament in Nashville. The Rebels will be the No. 2 seed.
The Bulldogs (21-10, 9-7 SEC) didn’t get their first points until Phil Turner converted a layup at the 13:47 mark.
MSU coach Rick Stansbury said his team lacked emotion.
“They hit us in the mouth, and we didn’t respond. It happened so quick, we couldn’t stop it. It zapped us. We were totally out of sync. We panicked and forced shots. We were different tonight than I’ve ever seen our basketball team,” he said.
Tennessee’s J.P. Prince and Scotty Hopson – a one-time MSU verbal commit – combined for 30 points, and three other Tennessee players scored in double figures.
Meanwhile, beloved MSU seniors Jarvis Varnado and Barry Stewart, both Tennessee natives, had pedestrian efforts in their final home game. Varnado had 11 points, four in the last 3:07 when the game had been decided. Stewart had six points on 2-for-11 shooting, 1-for-8 from 3-point range.
They were not alone. Leading scorer Ravern Johnson also struggled, finishing with five points on 2-for-11 shooting.
Kodi Augustus led the Bulldogs with 15 points, and point guard Dee Bost – who received an injection at halftime to ease the pain from a hip-pointer – added 11.
Fans who remained saluted Varnado and Stewart with a standing ovation as they exited with roughly 30 seconds left.
While Stansbury described the Bulldogs as “emotionless,” Varnado said the run of emotions he and Stewart felt before the game did not impact their performance.
“It was not a factor. We still had to play. We just didn’t come out with fire, the will to win,” he said. “They hurt us really bad. You can’t be down 17 to them and expect to win.”
Hopson had six points, and Prince had a 3-pointer and an assist in the Vols’ 17-0 run, during which State missed its first six shots.
The 17-point advantage turned out to be the biggest lead for the Vols (23-7, 11-5). State got within 11 points several times but got the deficit under 10 points just once, when Romero Osby scored in the lane with 10:11 to play. That made it 53-44.
Tennessee scored the next eight points, and Bobby Maze’s leaner with 7:29 left had the margin back at 17, 61-44.
“Our guys just came out sharp,” Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. “We play-called, we got good looks, and that boosted our confidence. We were aggressive. We got transition baskets. We did everything we were supposed to.”