By JOEL COLEMAN
Mississippi State’s shots weren’t falling, Tennessee was rolling and the Bulldogs’ deficit was increasing in the first half of MSU’s Saturday game against the Volunteers. Down by as many as 19 points, MSU appeared left for dead. Turns out, these dogs still had some bark and some bite left in them.
Mississippi State roared back to take a 64-59 win over Tennessee at Humphrey Coliseum. The Bulldogs (14-8, 5-5) trailed Tennessee (13-10, 5-5) for the entire game until Xavian Stapleton’s 3-pointer with 4:22 to go gave MSU a lead it never relinquished.
“The great lesson, and I love this lesson when it happens, is to never quit and never give up,” Mississippi State head coach Ben Howland said. “Our guys really exemplified that. Down 19, they kept their head up, kept fighting, kept battling, came back and found a way.”
Stapleton’s play was vital in keeping MSU afloat. The sophomore recorded his first career double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds, yet it was his go-ahead trey and subsequent block on the other end of the floor late in the game to preserve the lead that proved to be arguably the contest’s biggest moments.
“When I blocked the shot, that’s when I thought, ‘I think we’ve got it now’,” Stapleton said. “We then got some stops and the game was over.”
In the absence of production from some of MSU’s usual stars, it was Stapleton and a pair of freshmen who shouldered the majority of the load. With I.J. Ready missing his second straight game, this time due to a back injury, and Quinndary Weatherspoon and Lamar Peters combining for just 11 points on 4-for-26 shooting, Stapleton, Schnider Herard and Mario Kegler picked up the slack.
Like Stapleton, Herard also picked up a double-double with his 12 points and 15 rebounds.
“Schnider, to get 15 rebounds, he needs to bottle this up,” Howland said. “He’s getting better and better in terms of his aggression and how hard he’s playing.”
Kegler just missed a double-double. He led the Bulldogs with 17 points and had nine boards. Kegler’s 3-pointer with 3:47 to go was critical to helping MSU maintain its late lead and capped off his career day.
“I been waiting for this game for a long time – ever since I came out the womb,” Kegler said.
The success of Stapleton, Herard and Kegler allowed Mississippi State to overcome an absolutely brutal start. Tennessee charged out of the gate in the early going and led 29-10 with 4:50 until halftime. MSU closed the period on an 11-4 run, but still trailed 33-21 at the intermission. In the first half, the Bulldogs shot only 20 percent from the field (7-for-35) and were out-rebounded 28-24.
Things turned around for MSU over the contest’s final 20 minutes.
State collected 14 more rebounds than Tennessee in the second half. Much of MSU’s success came on the offensive glass. The Bulldogs ended the game with 21 total offensive rebounds which led to 19 second-chance points.
MSU also figured things out offensively. After finding little success making just 4-of-19 3-point attempts in the first half, the Bulldogs went to the basket more in the second half. That resulted in the buckets and free throws MSU needed to stage its comeback.
“MSU was just tougher down the stretch,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said. “You have to give them credit. They got down, stayed in it and got the momentum going their way.”
Howland admitted the win could serve as a big spark for the Bulldogs moving forward. After a rough couple of weeks that saw MSU lose four out of five games, State can now enjoy some positive vibes.
“I’m just really happy for our players,” Howland said. “You feel for the other team in terms of having been on that end before, being up 18 or 19 then losing. But it’s a great feeling when you’re the one coming back to win it.”