Visiting LSU did indeed make the evening interesting, cutting a ten-point deficit into a one-point Mississippi State lead on a series of improbable long shots. But not the one extra opportunity needed to make things really interesting. A tag-team turnover forced by Bost and Arnett Moultrie resulted in a couple of free throws by the latter and the margin of 76-71 victory.
#18-ranked State improved to 17-4 and 4-2 SEC while the Tigers left 12-8, 2-4.
Coach Rick Stansbury wasn’t at all surprised with another down-to-wire battle with LSU, just like the previous three meetings. Or for that matter how it ended, with Bost and Moultrie jumping white-hot Tiger shooter Anthony Hickey. The LSU freshman had ripped three three-point goals in as many attempts over a 95-clock second stretch, around another bomb by Ralston Turner. The barrage had brought LSU from 67-57 down to within 72-71.
Free throws by Bulldog Jalen Steele meant a three-point difference State had to defend for 12.9 ticks, and Stansbury was planning to foul once Hickey—who did get the ball as figured—crossed midcourt. It wasn’t necessary though.
“We were switching through ball screens and saw him turn back, and Isaw the opportunity to go get a steal,” said Moultrie. “It was my mentality no way he was going to get another lucky three.” Bost got a hand on the ball as everyone reversed direction, flipping to Moultrie who was fouled hard to prevent a layup. No intentional foul was called but LSU Coach Trent Johnson earned a technical which let Moultrie take four free shots and make two.
“That’s two experienced guys you trust making some plays,” said Stansbury. “They jumped that ball-screen and made the play.”
Johnson, who like Stansbury had been warned in the opening moments about the coaching box and apparently was T’d for crossing it at the end, was not happy about anything but how hard his outmatched men played. “I can’t fault the way our kids fought,” Johnson said. “When you got great kids and you fight and you’ve got things going on out there, you struggle with it.”
What things, the coach wasn’t saying. He was in accord with everyone else though about the game’s biggest difference. Moultrie had already notched eleven double-doubles and seven 20-point games, but this might have been his biggest and best Bulldog effort. The junior powered, literally, for 28 points with a dozen rebounds. And did so against a Tiger front line that while not especially athletic was at least big.
And he worked the last 4:35 a foul away from five. This actually seemed to improve his work around the Tiger rim. “It was about playing smart, aggressive defense and not getting silly fouls,” he said. “I wanted to have a good rebounding game because they lead the SEC.”
Or did, as the league’s best board-bunch was crushed on the glass 46 to 26. Backup center Wendell Lewis had nine rebounds and worked 23 minutes. That was largely because starting center Renardo Sidney lasted just 19 minutes around illness and inefficiency, shooting 1-of-8 with four rebounds and six turnovers. His absence wasn’t crippling though because Bost and small forward Rodney Hood combined for another dozen rebounds.
“You’re not going to have your edge every night, but you’ve got to find a way to survive,” said Stansbury. “One thing that shows it is rebound the basketball.”
The edge State lacked was some shooting, as Bost was 1-of-6 and missed all four arc-attempts, though he did contribute to ten assists. Hood was 4-of-10 en route to 13 points. As in Saturday’s win at Vanderbilt it was Steele coming off the bench for the key threes, three of them, and 15 total points. And having not gone to the foul line since December 22, the soph knocked down all four chances.
“Jalen brings you a lot of scoring off the bench and we need his three pointers in the game,” Bost said.
LSU made the first move, working around and through flat-footed Dogs for a quick lead which peaked at seven points. Not that either side was efficient on offense, with 16 combined turnovers in the first half. State got a reprieve too as the Tigers rushed some series. So it was still close enough a contest that Steele was able to tie it up on consecutive treys, and go ahead with free throws.
LSU could have taken a lead into the locker room, but Moultrie forced a loose ball and layup before the buzzer for a 32-31 Bulldog advantage.
The Tigers did enjoy one last lead on an uncontested rebound bucket from center Justin Hamilton. State responded with eleven-straight markers by attacking the goal directly for a 43-33 scoreboard at 16:00. The lead reached a dozen before LSU went bombs-away with three longballs, two by Andre Stringer. His driving layup had the Tigers suddenly within 49-46.
“We had the game under control,” Stansbury said. “Stringer got them going a little bit.”
Moultrie delivered a three-point play at 7:29 for a seven-point cushion that seemed to shake LSU up. Because the Tigers missed free throws, rushed bad shots and missed a few good ones, allowing State to stretch the margin back out to eleven. Stansbury hit the pause button after a Turner trey at 3:27, and while the called shot (Bost) missed Moultrie was there to rebound and dunk.
LSU still had a shot, or shots as Hickey got two big ones to drop. And after Ralston threw one in from the corner that was reviewed, Hickey unloaded from ridiculous range and glanced it in. “They made some tough three-point shots,” said Stansbury. “But we made the plays when we had to make our plays.”
Hickey ended up with four treys and 16 points, while Stringer was team-leader with 17 points. But big center Hamilton, averaging 19 points in SEC play, managed just 11 and took only eight shots. Forward Storm Warren managed six points and a single rebound as the Tiger frontcourt was utterly overmatched. Moultrie in particular was able to get a good shot off most any time he was given the ball, and the board-work spoke for itself.
“They had me boxed-out but they couldn’t seal me off,” Moultrie said. “I used my quickness.”
“Obvious Mississippi State dominated us on the glass. I think a lot of our guys lost their aggressiveness,” Johnson said. “Moultrie is special. I tip my hat to them.”
Now the Bulldogs take a two-win streak back on the road, this time to Florida for a Saturday afternoon match. The Gators are 15-4 and 3-1 SEC going into a Thursday night game at Ole Miss. As the league begins shaking-out in the fourth week, the matchup in Gainesville looms very large for both teams. The winner will take position immediately behind unbeaten Kentucky and one-loss (to State) Vanderbilt in the conference standings, as well as receive a boost in the rankings.
Bost said the Bulldogs warned themselves about not looking past these Tigers, but admitted there were already thoughts about Florida taking shape. And Moultrie? “I look forward to that matchup.”