"We just happened to make some bad plays at the wrong time in this game," Coach Rick Stansbury said. That last back-breaker being the most obvious one, though Mississippi State's coach tried downplaying it within the bigger game picture. "It gets magnified where it came."
True. Yet a game with 16 lead changes and a dozen ties was bound to come down to such a magnified moment. When the pressure—literally as Vanderbilt had extended their defense the last five minutes—was on, it was a transfer point guard making the mistake and a old SEC hand cashing it in.
"I'm not sure what happened," said MSU guard Riley Benock, intended target of Bryant's pass. "We knew we had to get something going pretty quick. They took away the middle and jumped that pass." Vanderbilt also took away MSU's best ballhandler on the inbounds at 21.6 ticks by denying Dee Bost the ball. Bost had been rattled just minutes before by a fall and loosened tooth anyway.
"Give Vanderbilt credit, they made the plays they had to make to win the game," said Stansbury. "That's the sign of a very good team." A team that had not won in Humphrey Coliseum since 1993, too, and had to make a clutch play to snap the eight-game losing string in Starkville.
"If you didn't care who won it was a great game," Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings added. Of course, he cared. He also cared that his team scored their first SEC road win this year, not to mention his first at the Hump. "It's a new feeling for me, I haven't known victory down here and we had to work really hard to get it."
None harder than Taylor, who took a game-most 18 shots and made nine. Most notable to Stansbury was how the 6-7 forward defied previous trends. "He was 1-of-12 on three pointers in the SEC, he was 3-of-9 tonight." Guard John Jenkins, the SEC's leading scorer, added 21 points with two treys. He also was perfect on nine free throws, a somewhat sore subject to the locals as Vanderbilt was 21-of-31 at the foul stripe compared to State's 14-of-17. That the free-throw point margin was the same as the final difference had an ironic sting.
Except the Bulldogs weren't complaining, much less surprised. "That's part of their game," Benock said. "So we tried to take it away and not let them get easy points at the line. We were playing so hard, getting after it, and sometimes you pick up fouls. It caught up with us late."
State got 19 and 18 points from the backcourt combo of Bost and Ravern Johnson, with five of the eight made treys between them. "I played better than I have been," said Johnson. "I was a little bit more selective on the shots I took and more confident." Forward Kodi Augustus added ten points and five rebounds despite four fouls. Starting center Renardo Sidney wasn't as lucky as he got in only 13 minutes before fouling out with six points and five boards.
"Sid was no factor in the game," Stansbury said. The MSU center's counterpart was, as Festus Ezeli got 14 points on 5-of-5 shooting and blocked a couple of shots…all in just 15 total minutes. "The last three minutes he was the difference in the game," said Stansbury, "they saved him."
It wasn't a snappy start for either side, with combined 6-of-17 shooting through five minutes. The Commodores were a bit better, with five points by Jenkins in a 9-5 lead. They still led at the next media break as both offenses settled for quick, and more often than not missed, outside shots. Sidney had also found his seat for the balance of the half by that point.
But a tip-in by sub-center Wendell Lewis and loose-ball layup from Augustus had State ahead 16-15, initiating a cycle of eight lead changes and five ties. The last, 33-33 on a Lewis layup. Johnson free throws put the Bulldogs in front and the halftime lead was 37-33, with MSU out-shooting the guests 45% to 35% and hitting five longballs.
"Wendell gave us blocks when he got in and got in the flow of the game," said Johnson. "It wasn't that we played good without Renardo, just we tried to run our sets and take as many shots as we could."
Barely 90 ticks into the new half both starting centers had three fouls, though both remained in. Anyway it was backcourt shooters doing the real damage for the next five minutes, matching jumper for jumper in the best sustained offensive stretch of the night. State led as much as seven on a Benock trey, only to have Vanderbilt answer in kind and catch up before Bost dropped a remarkable fallaway-and-foul jumper for three points. He fed Kodi Augustus for a dunk, then stuck a trey for a 61-53 lead at 10:04 that had Vanderbilt stopping play.
And, it turned out, MSU's rhythm, though the Dogs took some blame on themselves for not adjusting their own pace. "We started playing too fast and started taking a lot of quick shots," Johnson said. . They had momentum and we were still taking quick shots. They kept building off misses." Fouls also began adding up and the Commodores used free shots to chip away. When Jenkins was nicked by Benock throwing up a miss he made all three chances to go ahead 67-66 at 5:41. Bost and Johnson both rushed long shots and a Jenkins rebound bucket over a flat-footed Sidney had Stansbury calling time at 5:01. His team threw the ball away unforced though, and Sidney fouled out at 4:43.
"We decided to go to our press and I thought that kind of turned the game back in our favor," Stallings said. "We became the aggressor at that point and we stayed the aggressor, and we got some critical turnovers from them."
Still a five-point deficit was made up quickly for more back-and-forth, until with Vanderbilt up a point Lewis turned it over. Goulbourne's driving flip fell and State's Johnson missed in the lane. Bost deflected a sure scoring pass only to take a jarring fall and a seat at 2:24. Ezeli got the ball in the lane for the five-point margin again. Bost returned in a timeout at 1:45.
Vanderbilt gave State a chance in the last half-minute as Goulbourne flat fell for a turnover at 21.6 seconds. But Bryant froze in face of the press and his cross-court pass was easily picked; Taylor was fouled hard but not before stuffing the back-breaking basket. The final VU points came, of course, on free throws.
Though Stallings credited pressure defense with changing the game, Benock thought the issue was more with State. "They didn't apply no pressure that we should have been turning it over the way we did," Benock said. "We've got to execute better in those situations." For his part Stansbury wondered how he could have played that decisive inbounds with Bost still sharp.
"He had some good moments, I probably played him too many minutes. Because this was big a game, it wasn't just minutes. We played a lot of man (defense), that led to some things late in the game. Dee would have brought the ball up against pressure, always."
Though, Stansbury was actually encouraged his shaky defensive squad was able to play so much man this game and make it work so long. State might have had one terrible turnover but only 12 total giveaways were also progress, and the Dogs battled to a draw on the boards while holding one of the SEC's leading shooting squads under 42% accuracy.
"There's a lot of positives I'll take from it, we showed some toughness and grit," Stansbury said. At the same time the coach has a natural concern how his club will respond to a numbing loss and fast turnaround, since at noon Saturday they must line back up for a hot Florida team.
"We have a real challenge ahead of us now," Stansbury said. For his part senior Benock knows it is a challenge…yet might also be another opportunity by getting right back on the floor with no time to hurt.
"It can be a good thing or a bad thing," Benock said. "We have to be mature now and learn from this, put it behind, and get ready for the next game."