Mississippi State stuns SEC champs

Marvin Westwestwords

Well, that was quick.

Tennessee played a horrible first half, worst of the year, and was unceremoniously dumped from the SEC tournament.

It didn’t take long, less than 20 minutes, to determine that suddenly mighty Mississippi State was the far superior team Friday in Nashville. The Bulldogs doubled the score on the hapless Volunteers, 38-19, and coasted to a stunning 73-56 upset of the league champions.

“I don’t know who that team was that played the first half against Mississippi State,” said Rick Barnes.

I know – but it was understandable that the coach didn’t want to claim ownership. The Bulldogs dominated in the paint and threw a great defensive effort at player-of-the-year Dalton Knecht. Best I could tell, the hall-of-fame coach didn’t do much about it until intermission.

That was too late. The game was already over. It just hadn’t officially ended.

Barnes blamed the early exit on the players. He said they got away from the defensive game plan.

“You can’t just show up in this league.”

The last play of the half seemed a summation of what had preceded it. Knecht, under heavy pressure, made a reckless pass in the general direction of Zakai Zeigler. It was picked off. The Bulldogs missed a shot but Shawn Jones scored with the rebound.

Barnes threw up his hands and hurried off the court. I can’t be sure but I thought he was disgusted.

Tennessee had been outplayed and overwhelmed. It had not scored a field goal in five minutes and 44 seconds. It had shot 20.6 per cent. It was two of 18 on three-point attempts. The Bulldogs’ inside game was overpowering.

Officials were a factor. They saw almost no first-half fouls. They allowed both teams to slug it out. The Bulldogs were much better at knocking and banging.

Consider this: Mississippi State was the No. 9 team coming into the tournament. It had lost four in a row.

There was a second half. Tennessee won, 37-35. At one point, it reduced the deficit to 12.

Ziggy didn’t shoot well but he finished with 20 points. He hit long threes back-to-back and the heavily partisan crowd was suddenly optimistic. State restored order.

For the first time in almost forever, Zeigler had more turnovers than assists, four to two.

The Bulldogs were the best of the year at surrounding and smothering Knecht. He scored 14 on four-of-17 shooting. Jonas Aidoo had 10 rebounds but only five points. He was ineffective as a rim protector. The Vols’ inside defense was absent or tardy. Bulldogs roared into the paint for 42 points.

As is generally the case, Jahmai Mashack fought a good fight. He scored 10. Josiah-Jordan James missed his five shots but grabbed nine rebounds.

For days before this game, Barnes urged Santiago Vescovi to shoot the ball, to again be who he used to be. Santi didn’t make it. He hit one of six but did contribute four assists against only one turnover.

VFL Chris Lofton is recognized as a SEC Legend during the Tennessee-Mississippi State game.

Barnes praised Mississippi State.

“Congratulations to them. Coach Chris Jans did a great job executing their game plan. They dominated the game in any way they wanted to.”

Barnes said what he told the team at halftime remained true.

“We allowed our lack of defensive alertness, intensity, sticking to the game plan, to roll over into what went on at the offensive end.”

Barnes did some interesting coaching after the game.

“I told them, ‘Let’s just sit here and think about how we feel right now … If you feel like this again, it’s over. I want you to not forget right now what you did. This time of year, you want to give it your best.”

Mashack said it is up to him and the Vols who have been in NCAA tournaments to correct the flaws from this defeat and get ready to go again.

“We’re going to get that fixed for sure. I think we’ve shown it this whole season, that we’re a team with resilience… There are no second chances from there … Whatever we need to fix, we’re going to get it fixed. We’re going to have ourselves a great March Madness.”

Barnes did not sound totally confident about picking up the pieces and trying to put them back together again.

“I wouldn’t be truthful if – I’m concerned. I don’t know if I’d say ‘worried’ but I’m always concerned about where we are, our mindset, what we’re thinking.

“I’ve been doing it long enough … I wish I had a crystal ball and look into it, and know exactly… We have a program, a system we believe in. Win or lose, we got to do what we do, get prepared to play someone next week, whoever that might be, and go from there.”

Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com


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