The return to the basketball floor for Mississippi State's Jalen Steele was spoiled by another bunch of Bulldogs on Sunday afternoon.
After holding as much as a 15-point lead in the first half, MSU lost a 59-57 decision to the Alabama A&M Bulldogs of the Southwestern Athletic Conference at Humphrey Coliseum.
The 2,026 fans in attendance were eager to see how the home-standing Bulldogs were going to perform after being off for eight days.
In the first half, Mississippi State built a nice advantage, but ended up in a dogfight it didn't expect in the second half and ultimately was on the wrong side of the final score.
It was the first time State was defeated at home, now 3-1, and it was the first loss in school history against Alabama A&M as the series now stands at 4-1. The Magnolia State Bulldogs are now 21-3 against SWAC schools.
"It was obviously disappointing loss, not just because of the opponent, but based on the opportunity and trying to protect the home court, which we had done so far," MSU coach Rick Ray said.
State jumped out to an 8-0 lead and had as much as a 27-12 advantage in the first half, but Alabama A&M cut the margin to 33-25 at halftime.
"I thought we lost it at the end of first half when we had a 15-point lead with 5:58 to play and took some ill-advised shots," Ray said. "We went into the half leading by eight instead of at least 15. Alabama A&M played strong and physical and our guys didn't react very well to it."
Mississippi State freshman forward and Starkville native Gavin Ware, who had a double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds, said the team saw an extended period of time when it wasn't "executing defensively" and "got relaxed with the lead."
Even though MSU lost the lead in the second half, it established a 57-52 advantage with 2:05 left in the game after a basket by Craig Sword.
State once again went on a scoring drought and a bucket by Green Hill put Alabama A&M back up 58-57 with 42.5 seconds left in the game.
"We showed a lot of poise, never quit and none of them had their head down," Alabama A&M coach Willie Hayes said. "We felt like we could still win this game and stayed into it."
Hill hit another free throw to provide the final point.
"This was a big win for our university, program and conference," Hayes said. "It was a big win for our conference when Southern beat Texas A&M and this is big win."
The bright spot for MSU was when Steele entered the game with 17:09 remaining in the first half. It was the first time Steele had played since the second game of the year against Florida Atlantic. He missed eight games due to a fractured wrist.
"It felt good being back," Steele said. "I need to get back into the groove and into the game. I felt good so now when I go in, I need to let the game come to me, not rush things and get into the flow."
Steele played 27 minutes and scored 10 points.
"For the 27 minutes he played, I thought he did a good job," Ray said.
Sword led State with 14 points to go along with the scoring output of Steele and Ware.
MSU, which saw its record fall to 4-7, will be right back on the court Thursday when New Orleans comes to Starkville.
"We'll see," Ray said about how his Bulldogs will respond four days after a tough loss. "It could be a good or bad thing."
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