The Basketball Bulldogs hung tough, before falling to Vanderbilt 87-81.
MSU shot better than 50 percent from the floor and scored their fourth highest point total against a conference opponent this season. Alas, Vanderbilt rallied from a five-point deficit in the final 10 minutes to complete a two-game season sweep.
Vanderbilt improves to 23-9 and will face Florida in semifinal round action Saturday afternoon. MSU falls to 17-14 and awaits word on a potential invite to the National Invitational Tournament. The Bulldogs lost their conference tournament opener for the first time since 2006.
The Bulldogs hung tough and played one of their best offensive games despite a patchwork lineup. Heavy foul trouble caused the Bulldogs to play several unique combinations in the game’s opening half.
“The bench play was great in the first half,” MSU assistant coach Phil Cunningham said. “We had to use several different combinations. In the second half, John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor took over. They took control of the game. Give credit to our kids for fighting hard.
“This game was a lot like our season. We had a lot of adversity but found a way to keep battling.”
The Bulldogs started on fire, hitting seven of their first eight shots from the field. A 3-point basket by Dee Bost placed the Maroon and White on top, 17-11 with 14:53 left in the half. The fast start came despite Renardo Sidney picking up two fouls in less than the first two minutes of the game.
The Commodores pulled even at 19 on a 3-point basket by Taylor with 12:57 left in the half. On the offensive end, the Bulldogs went back on top with Wendell Lewis getting a tip-in. Reserves Lewis, Brandon Bolen, Brian Bryant and John Riek all played quality minutes in the opening half.
The lead switched hands four times before a 3-point basket by Ravern Johnson placed the Bulldogs ahead, 34-31. The Bulldogs were able to maintain that slight push, easing into halftime with a 38-36 advantage.
“We really challenged Dee (Bost) at halftime,” Cunningham said, “He really responded. Our offensive play was really good in the second half. We had good ball movement and really kept everybody involved.”
The Commodores scored the first nine points of the second half. The Bulldogs missed their first eight shots from the field to start the final 20 minutes. A 3-pointer by Jenkins placed VU on top, 45-38 with 16:17 left.
Behind the inside play of Sidney, the Bulldogs battled back. Sidney finished with 22 points and seven rebounds, with 20 of those points coming in the game’s final half. A pair of Bost free throws tied the teams at 49 with 12:10 left.
A follow-up trey by Bost capped a 14-4 run and placed the Bulldogs on top, 52-49. The Bulldogs extended the lead to five points at both 65-60 and 67-62.
Still, the half belonged to Jenkins and Taylor.
Taylor made back-to-back baskets for a 73-69 Vanderbilt lead with 3:53 left. Then with the teams tied at 76, Jenkins is fouled on a 3-point shot attempt. The VU guard made all three free throws. After a layup by Sidney, Jenkins scored on the other end with a four-point play – converting a free throw after being fouled on a 3-point shot attempt.
Still protecting an 83-78 lead, Taylor put the game away with a basket as the shot clock expired with 42 seconds left in regulation.
For the contest, the Bulldogs hit 32 of 63 shots from the field (50.8 percent), 9 of 19 shots from 3-point range (47.4 percent) and 8 of 8 shots from the foul line (100.0 percent). The Commodores hit 28 of 56 shots from the field (50.0 percent), 11 of 23 shots from 3-point range (47.8 percent) and 20 of 22 shots from the foul line (90.9 percent).
The Bulldogs held a 35-25 rebounding advantage. MSU had 17 assists and 10 turnovers, while VU had 14 assists and five turnovers.
For the Commodores, Jenkins finished with 29 points, Taylor had 20 points and Brad Tinsley had 12 points.
For the Bulldogs, Johnson followed Sidney with 18 points, while Bost had 16 points and 11 assists. Augustus added 10 points.