By Brad Locke
Many talented young teams have a tendency to struggle while showing flashes of brilliance over the course of a season. For Mississippi State, it’s the opposite: Strong play mitigated by acts of youthful indiscretion.
It happened again Wednesday night in an 81-76 loss to Tennessee. The Bulldogs were cruising along in the first half, leading 25-17 after a Ravern Johnson 3-pointer, when the wheels inexplicably fell off.
Over the final five minutes of the half, MSU committed six turnovers, four of them by freshman point guard Dee Bost. Tennessee erased the deficit and held a 31-28 halftime lead.
The Volunteers never trailed again.
The Bulldogs (17-11, 7-6 SEC) have lost three straight and four of their last five. A common theme has been a letdown, at some point in the game, that proved their undoing.
“When the other team gets on a little bit of a roll, we have a tendency sometimes to speed up with the atmosphere and the environment instead of slowing down,” MSU coach Rick Stansbury said Thursday. “That’s what got us in trouble (Wednesday) night.”
In Saturday’s 87-85 double-overtime loss to Alabama, State missed a golden opportunity to knock the Crimson Tide to its knees. After staking a 49-40 lead with 13:58 to go in the game, the Bulldogs saw Bama go on a 14-3 run to take the lead.
The culprit this time was poor shooting: MSU hit 1-for-8 from the field, including 0-for-5 from 3-point range, during the run.
And in a 91-76 loss at Auburn on Feb. 14, MSU let a five-point lead slip away with an 18-4 Tiger run in the second half.
State committed only one turnover during that stretch, but the shots weren’t falling.
“Those are little stretches that have hurt us,” Stansbury said. “We depend on that 3-point shot so much. That same shot that you make at one stage of the game, that same shot might not be a good shot at the next stage of the game.”
Now comes another critical showdown against Auburn (18-10, 7-6) on Saturday, a game that will give the winner sole possession of second place in the SEC Western Division. MSU’s best hope for an NCAA tournament berth is to finish second, get a first-round bye in the SEC Tournament, and win it all in Tampa.
That won’t happen if such inconsistent play continues, and it’s not just the five-minute scoring drought that’s hurt State.
Other consistency issues can be seen with a quick glance at box scores. For example:
n In two of his last three games, center Jarvis Varnado’s final stat line has read: eight points, six rebounds.
n Johnson hit 4 of 9 from 3-point range against Tennessee, but he’s had some woeful games of late, including 2 of 10 against Alabama and 1 of 8 against Auburn.
n Bost has committed 23 turnovers over the last five games.
In the four games prior to that, he committed a total of three. Stansbury has said many times this season that the Bulldogs have a “small margin for error,” given their youth and lack of size. He said it during State’s 3-0 SEC start, and he’s still saying it.
“It hasn’t been lack of effort. Our kids have played hard,” he said. “It’s just been a breakdown here or there is the difference in winning games.”