Hole too deep: State comes from behind only to fall short

Nick, left, and Quinndary Weatherspoon show their disappointment during the Kentucky game.

Staff Writer

Mississippi State is starting to dig itself a little bit of a hole this season.

On Saturday at Humphrey Coliseum, it got a little deeper for the Bulldogs.

For the second time this week, MSU was unable to defend its home floor. A valiant come-from-behind effort came up short as the Bulldogs fell 71-67 to No. 5 Kentucky.

It was a game that Mississippi State trailed by 15 points at halftime before its deficit grew to 18 in the second half. Nonetheless, the Bulldogs (16-7, 4-6) got back to within one in the second half before Kentucky (20-3, 9-1) held on.

“If you go into halftime with 20 minutes left in the game down 15 against a really good team – maybe the hottest team in the country – that puts a very low probability (on winning),” MSU head coach Ben Howland said. “That’s a disappointing loss.”

It marked back-to-back games for State to lose on its own court after falling 92-88 in overtime to LSU on Wednesday. Suddenly, the Bulldogs are two games under .500 in Southeastern Conference play with eight contests left on the regular season schedule.

The path to MSU’s first NCAA Tournament berth in a decade is still in front of it despite this week’s two defeats, but it was made tougher on Saturday.

The latest heartbreaking loss for the Bulldogs was set up by a wretched first 20 minutes of action.

Little went right for Mississippi State prior to the intermission. Kentucky held a 17-10 rebounding edge in the first frame. The Wildcats shot 5-for-11 from 3-point range while the Bulldogs were just 0-for-4.

Perhaps the biggest problem for Mississippi State in the early going was the absence of productivity from senior Quinndary Weatherspoon. Weatherspoon, who entered Saturday’s game on perhaps the best stretch of basketball of his career, was held scoreless in the first half.

It all added up to a 40-25 deficit for the Bulldogs by the time the horn sounded for halftime.

The Kentucky lead ultimately proved to be too much for State to overcome, but it wasn’t without a Bulldog fight.

In the second half, Weatherspoon led the charge as he roared back to life. He scored 14 second-half points including a trio of 3-pointers.

“To only get (Weatherspoon) one shot in the first half hurt us,” Howland said. “He came out in the second half and was much more aggressive looking for his jump shot, which is what he has to do.”

Lamar Peters scored 12 of his team-high 16 points after the halftime break as well.

It was Weatherspoon though who keyed MSU’s resurgence that nearly led to a comeback win for the ages. Behind Weatherspoon, the Bulldogs went on a 19-2 run that cut a 49-31 deficit down to one lone point at 51-50.

State could never get all the way back however. The Bulldogs were within three points as the clock wound down at the end of the game before an Ashton Hagans free throw from Kentucky essentially sealed the deal.

“We held onto the rope and our hands are bleeding right now,” Wildcat coach John Calipari said. “We just held on.”

State’s early hole proved to be insurmountable. Now, the Bulldogs are left to try and make sure the same can’t be said for their entire season after the 4-6 start to the conference schedule.

MSU’s next game comes on Tuesday at home against Alabama. It’s not lost on Howland that Mississippi State is nearing must-win territory.

“We need to win our next game,” Howland said after Saturday’s loss. “You can definitely say that. We have to get back to 5-6 (in SEC play) versus 4-7.”

A loss to Alabama on Tuesday would be an especially tough blow as the Bulldogs play four of their final seven SEC games on the road. The path to an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament might start to become especially difficult.

In a season that began with such high expectations, the Bulldogs now have to start climbing a bit to reach their goals. State can only hope they have better luck digging out of its hole the rest of this season than it did in Saturday’s gut-punching defeat.

“Everybody is scratching and clawing trying to get in that tournament in our league right now and it’s tough,” Howland said.