A jarring one at that. Mississippi State (1-1) sputtered around the home court for most of the evening by missing almost two-thirds of shots, throwing the ball away, failing to find defensive position. The end result was a ten-point loss to MAC member Akron (1-0). The Bulldogs are already assigned to the 2KSC semifinals in New York City so defeat didn’t change their schedule.
It will force a fast attitude adjustment.
“This showed a lot of what we have to do,” said Moultrie. “Hustle more, get tougher, be more physical. We have to learn from it and move on.”
Akron won’t be moving on to NYC. But they left Humphrey Coliseum with well-won bounce in their steps. “I think it was an upset,” Zips Coach Keith Dambrot said. “But I will say our guys have been in the post-season a lot. We’ve been in a lot of big ball games with our guys and it showed.”
Indeed it did. Akron shot 48% and much of the way held their own on the backboards, while putting enough half-court defensive pressure on to encourage 19 Bulldog turnovers. More impressive though was how the Zips shrugged off iffy shooting from their leading scorers, as well as game-long foul issues, and still beat the Bulldogs when and where it mattered. Mississippi State had a dozen more free-throw points and a 41-34 rebounds edge and still couldn’t cash in.
“Give Akron some credit,” MSU Coach Rick Stansbury said. “Hey, they came in here and were just better than us in every area. I never felt from the get-go we were in control of the game, ever. We had a chance, but we were a step slow.”
In fact State had several chances and repeatedly came up short. Slow too, as the coach noted, though this seemed much more mental than physical. “We never got it going really,” guard Dee Bost said. “We couldn’t get in synch. The pushed us out of the offense, they were a great defensive team and we just couldn’t get it going.”
Bost was Exhibit A in that regard. Though he notched a team-best 13 points, eight of those came at the foul stripe. Otherwise the senior was 2-of-9 overall and 1-of-6 at the arc. A couple of quick first-half fouls might have rattled Bost a bit but he was much more frustrated through a second half where everyone really was working off different scripts.
“I didn’t think we ever had the zip (no pun was intended) that you’ve got to have, that Akron had,” Stansbury said. “I never felt it all night long.”
Forward Renardo Sidney had a dozen points in 25 minutes, though he didn’t play the last half-dozen minutes when State wanted to pick up defensive pressure. Forward Rodney Hood had ten points, and guard Brian Bryant nine. Moultrie collected 15 of State’s rebounds with eight points but was 2-of-13 shooting and 4-of-7 at the foul line.
“I’ve had plenty nights like that,” Moultrie said. “I just have to regroup and look forward to a new game. It bothered me a lot, I was worrying about trying to finish through.”
Moultrie had his share of simple misses, but there was another big reason he and Sidney struggled. His name was Zeke Marshall, the 7-0 Zips center. Marshall scored ten points with six rebounds and played just 24 minutes. But when on the court his post presence was obvious with five blocked shots.
“Zeke doesn’t get much recognition but he’s one of the best shot-blockers in America,” Dambrot said. “When he was fresh he completely changed the game.”
Forward Quincy Diggs led all scorers with 19 points. And the Zips bench provided 21 points, compared to just six from Bulldog backups.
State began well enough with a series of three-point plays making for a 11-6 lead just four minutes in. Stansbury wanted to substitute freely since his squad had played on Monday, but changing players seemed to change the rhythm too. Akron took advantage of Bulldog turnovers to grab a short lead, with things staying tight until around seven minutes when second center Wendell Lewis scored a rebound.
State didn’t notch another bucket the rest of the half, only free throws, while Akron eased out to a 37-29 lead at intermission thanks to 13 Diggs points. Not that the Zips had everything going their way as fouls were already adding up and just four minutes into the new half a trio had three personals.
But Akron withstood one good Bulldog run to open the period and by attacking the low block kept beating MSU defenders by Stansbury’s step-slow. Akron guards gained enough confidence that even when Sidney sealed nicely the 6-5 Brian Walsh was able to loop a banker over him for the 58-46 lead at seven minutes.
It was still a double-digit deficit at four minutes when, with fouls to give, State put on pressure and forced some Akron miscues. Bost made free throws for a 62-56 deficit. But Bost missed a long three, Diggs controlled his dribble just enough for a scoop layup and at the other end Bost pushed off for a turnover. Diggs iced it with free throws at 0:39.
Bost and coach alike lamented that for too much of this night the whole State squad kept looking for somebody, anybody to set a tone. “We did, especially in the second half,” said Bost. “Once they got all those fouls we wanted to take it to the big guys. But they had a great rotation and sometimes we couldn’t get in our own mix.”
“And we just couldn’t finish easy shots,” Stansbury said. “They ran us around and I thought we were a step slow. I know we expended a lot of energy chasing Eastern Kentucky Monday night, but that’s never an excuse.”
“I think we had a little more juice when it mattered, when the game was on the line,” Dambrot said. Not to mention a better rotation. “We feel we have a really good bench. The only problem we butchered more sets than we have in seven years, but it’s the most ability we’ve had 1-to-13 since I’ve been here.”
The Bulldogs don’t immediately have to take their act on the road. They have a Saturday home game with South Alabama (1:00) to adjust some issues, then more practice days before reporting to MSG on November 17 for a matchup with Texas A&M. On the 19th it is either Arizona or St. John’s.
“We just weren’t very good, and I don’t have answers why,” Stansbury said, adding that the New York trip is suddenly secondary to this Saturday’s home date. “You get ready for your next one. They’re a good team, then you worry about the rest of those big boys."