By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
NASHVILLE – Mississippi State still had plenty of fight left, but it wasn’t nearly enough to keep its season going.
As they’ve done much of the season, the Bulldogs clawed back but were ultimately overmatched in a 69-53 loss to Tennessee in the second round of the SEC Tournament on Thursday at Bridgestone Arena.
Craig Sword scored 13 of his team-high 19 points after halftime as No. 13 seed MSU (10-22) cut what had been a 19-point deficit to nine points. Sword’s free throw with 4 minutes, 42 seconds left made it a 58-49 game.
But fifth-seeded Tennessee (20-11) had answers, using its strong inside-out game to salt it away. Jordan McRae and Jarnell Stokes both made layups for a 13-point lead, and State never threatened again.
Tennessee, which will play No. 4 seed Alabama in today’s quarterfinals, has won nine of its last 10 games and is making a serious case for an NCAA tournament bid. MSU, meanwhile, had won three of its last four entering Thursday’s game, and the second-half rally was a testament to the resiliency of a team with only six healthy scholarship players.
“That just shows how much heart we have,” forward Colin Borchert said. “We’ve been down all season, and it’s what we’ve been doing all year, just go down fighting.”
under the rim
MSU was outscored 42-24 in the paint, but it had chances around the rim. The point-blank shots just wouldn’t fall, and MSU coach Rick Ray credited Tennessee’s physical brand of play.
“Any time you’re around the basketball, they just really put their body into you and make it hard and difficult for you to score and finish inside,” Ray said. “So they just have that mentality that you may get at the rim, but you’re going to have a difficult time finishing at the rim, and you saw that today.”
Tennessee, which beat MSU by 15 points in the regular season, got 17 points from McRae and 15 from Trae Golden, both guards. Stokes, a forward, had 10 points and nine rebounds, while Quinton Chievous added 10 points off the bench.
Tennessee established its dominance early, especially in the paint. After MSU took a 4-0 lead, the Volunteers reeled off 12 consecutive points.
They later went on a 14-2 run that featured three layups and three dunks. A putback jam by Chievous gave UT a 35-16 edge with 3:44 left in the half.
Tennessee led 35-19 at the break and already had 22 points in the paint despite Stokes scoring just four. MSU’s 1-3-1 defense, which had worked so well the day before against South Carolina, could do little to keep the Volunteers from doing as they pleased.
UT shot 51.8 percent from the field.
“They did a great job attacking the rim, and we didn’t do a good job dropping to the ball, so they got a lot of open shots,” said MSU point guard Trivante Bloodman, who had 10 points.
Borchert added 12 points for State.
“You’ve to got to give Rick’s team a lot of credit,” UT coach Cuonzo Martin said.
“I told them he has a chance to be special with those guys – young, brave, talented players. They play hard.”