By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Mississippi State’s troubles on defense and the boards aren’t going to go away quietly.
Those issues revisited the Bulldogs at Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday in a 72-57 loss to Tennessee.
MSU (7-9, 2-2 SEC) dropped its second consecutive game, while Tennessee (9-7, 1-3) picked up its first SEC win of the season and snapped a four-game losing skid.
The Volunteers had their way in the paint on both ends, outscoring MSU 42-16 there while winning the rebounding battle, 37-32. Foul trouble exacerbated State’s problems, because there are only seven healthy scholarship players on the roster.
“It goes back to us not having practice bodies,” coach Rick Ray said. “They’re not finishing against Jarnell Stokes and guys like that, and Kenny Hall. So when they come into a game environment, they don’t have the practice background to go in and finish those shots.”
Stokes, Tennessee’s burly sophomore, was fed the ball early and often and finished with a game-high 18 points on 7-of-13 shooting. He also grabbed 11 rebounds and led the Volunteers’ strong defensive effort in the paint.
The Bulldogs had trouble finishing at the rim early, which led to them taking some ill-advised perimeter shots. It was very similar to what happened three days earlier in a 32-point loss to Alabama.
“Yeah, we started settling for a lot of bad shots,” point guard Trivante Bloodman said. “But we just have to get back on defense. Our defense wasn’t really all that good.”
Tennessee shot 46.7 percent overall and made 7 of 17 from 3-point range. Josh Richardson scored 16 points, while Jordan McRae added 12.
Junior guard Jalen Steele, who starred at nearby Fulton High School, scored a team-high 15 points for MSU, but he was on the bench with leg cramps for a nine-minute stretch after halftime as Tennessee packed it away.
Back-to-back 3-pointers by reserve Derek Reese gave Tennessee a 48-37 lead, and it stretched to 52-39 on Stokes’ slam dunk with 12 minutes left.
Ray called timeout after that, but it didn’t help. In fact, Reese buried another 3-pointer 22 seconds later, capping a 13-2 run.
“He can make shots, so he’s a threat, and he can make decisions with the basketball,” UT coach Cuonzo Martin said.
MSU kept scrapping behind the sudden scoring of Bloodman, who notched all nine of his points over a five-minute span in the second half. His layup cut UT’s lead to 64-55 with 4:14 to go.
MSU shot 37.5 percent and made just 3 of 12 from 3-point range. Fred Thomas scored 14 points, while Craig Sword added 10 before fouling out.
Steele had 11 points by halftime, at which point Tennessee led 37-29.