By MATTHEW STEVENS
The tight rope walk act that Mississippi State had been walking throughout the first four games finally ended with them falling off with its first loss of the 2009-10 season.
The Bulldogs (4-1) came into Tuesday nightâ€™s matchup as a 10-point favorite over the upstart Sun Belt Conference opponent that had lost its last four games against Division I competition, but once again allowed a mid-major to hang around and ultimately pull off the 61-59 upset in front of a shocked 4,204 people scattered around the Humphrey Coliseum.
â€śThereâ€™s just no margin for error in this basketball team,â€ť Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said.
The loss represented the biggest blown lead by State, 13 points, since the Bulldogs gave up that kind of lead in the semifinals of the Postseason NIT against West Virginia on March 27.
The loss will be mostly remembered for State inability to knock down shots from the free-throw line with under a minute left.
Junior guard Brian Bryant missed key free throws down the stretch that couldâ€™ve put MSU ahead or at the very least forced an overtime period but the junior college transfer found the rim on three in a row from the charity stripe in the final 15 seconds of play putting an end to Stateâ€™s comeback attempt. The Bulldogs finished 12-of-18 as a team from the foul line.
â€śAll that stuff at the end of the game gets magnified,â€ť Stansbury said. â€śGoing to the foul line and missing free throws, none of us like that. Unfortunately, thatâ€™s part of the game.â€ť
Florida Atlantic head coach Mike Jarvis, who has been to the NCAA Tournament with three different programs (Boston University, George Washington and St. Johnâ€™s) in his 18 seasons on the bench, switched to a zone defense in the second half with a box-and-one principle to take Mississippi State guard Ravern Johnson out of his offensive rhythm.
â€śWe knew if we were going to have a chance to win, weâ€™d have to somehow try to contain him,â€ť Jarvis said. â€śI think it paid off really extending the zone like we did.â€ť
The senior from Lyon, who came in fourth in the nation in scoring at 27.3 points per game, finished with just 18 and four in the second half of play.
â€śWhen they played zone, they spread it out (and) I really didnâ€™t know what to do,â€ť Johnson said. â€śBasically they just took me out of the game in the second half.â€ť
However, Johnson was the only player to hit a shot beyond the arc and his teammates finished 0-for-7 on three-pointers Tuesday night and the Bulldogs missed six in a row in the second half.
After Florida Atlantic made the first of two free throws for the winning margin, Bryant was fouled with 3 seconds left on the clock but missed the front end of the bonus from the charity stripe and his intentional miss was knocked out of bounds as the horn sounded.
Once the referees gathered at the scorersâ€™ table and eventually put .3 seconds back on the clock, a desperation tip-in opportunity by MSU senior forward Kodi Augustus rattled around the rim before falling out. After the game, MSU spokespeople confirmed the referees had waved off the shot and so it wouldnâ€™t have mattered had the ball gone through.
Florida Atlantic was led by sophomore forward Kore Whiteâ€™s career-high 18 points as the 6-foot-8 transfer from Marshall dominated in the paint.
â€śIâ€™m tough on Kore and I told him heâ€™s got to understand that the reason Iâ€™m tough on him is because I think he can be a great player,â€ť Jarvis said. â€śHeâ€™s got three years to really, really develop his game so I just told him to be patient with the old guy because he knows what heâ€™s doing.â€ť
Mississippi State will now have a 11-day break before they have to play another game as they host 2010 NCAA Tournament participant East Tennessee State on Dec. 11.