After building a 13-point lead, offensive struggles in the second half ended the season as Mississippi State dropped a 78-66 decision to arch-rival Ole Miss in the final second-round contest played Thursday night at the Georgia Dome.
Ole Miss (19-13) will now face Georgia (18-12) at 8:30 p.m. CT Friday in the tournament’s quarterfinal round. For MSU, the season ends at 14-19. The rivals have now split their only two meetings in the conference’s postseason tournament, as MSU won 73-64 in 2003.
“Obviously this loss hurts,” MSU head coach Rick Ray said. “Anytime you lose the last game of the season and you played so well, and obviously losing to your in-state rival as well, too, it burns a little more.
“But I thought that for about 60 minutes here in the SEC Tournament that we showed how good that we can be and how bright our future is. I think if we get some depth in our program and we have some guys with a little bit more of a maturation process, our freshmen become sophomores and sophomores become juniors, I think you will see that we have got a lot of talent in this program. We just need some stability as far as depth.”
After shooting a season-best 59.3 percent in a first-round 82-68 tournament win over Vanderbilt Wednesday night, MSU started off on the same path Thursday night.
The Bulldogs scored the game’s first 10 points and eventually hit their first six shots from the field for a second straight game. Back-to-back baskets by Colin Borchert capped the 10-0 run to start the game. A jumper by Fred Thomas ran the lead to 15-4 with 15:45 left in the first half.
Ole Miss closed within four but the MSU scored seven straight points to build a 23-12 lead on a Fred Thomas 3-point basket. The lead reached double-digits again when I.J. Ready completed an old-fashioned 3-point play for a 29-19 lead with 8:36 left in the half.
The lead grew to as many as 12 in the opening half after a jumper by Gavin Ware. In the opening half, MSU shot 57.7 percent from the field and led 44-35 at halftime.
A layup by Ready ran the lead to 51-38 with 16:42 left in the contest. From there, the Bulldogs entered a prolonged scoring draught. In the game’s final half, the Bulldogs went close to 10 minutes without a field goal.
Down 54-46, Ole Miss scored six straight points to pull within a basket. Ole Miss finally took its first lead at 57-56 on a Ladarius White layup with 8:15 left. The Ole Miss lead snapped a string of better than 68 straight minutes in tournament play where MSU held a lead.
The Bulldogs held their last lead at 60-59 after Craig Sword split two free throws with 6:15 left. The Rebels answered with an old-fashioned 3-point play by Aaron Jones and a 3-pointer by Jarvis Summers.
MSU only managed four total field goals and committed 11 turnovers in the second half.
“We learned a lot this week,” Ray said. “First foremost, you can see that you come into a situation in the SEC Tournament when you’re on that losing streak, and our guys having the ability to look past that and get ready for the game ahead.
“I think a lot of teams would have just folded the tent and not come in here and competed. If there is one positive you can take from this as a team, we showed what we are capable of doing.”
For the contest, the Bulldogs hit 19 of 49 shots from the field (38.8 percent), 7 of 18 shots from 3-point range (38.9 percent) and 21 of 33 shots from the free throw line (63.6 percent). The Rebels hit 27 of 60 shots from the field (45.0 percent), 12 of 30 shots from 3-point range (40.0 percent) and 12 of 17 shots from the free throw line (70.6 percent).
MSU held a 36-35 rebounding advantage. The Bulldogs had eight assists and 17 turnovers, while the Rebels had 15 assists and 10 turnovers.
Sword and Thomas each had 16 points for MSU. Ready added 10 points. Ware fell a basket shy of a double-double with eight points and a team-high 10 rebounds.
Ole Miss received 21 points apiece from Marshall Henderson and Summers. Anthony Perez had 10 points.