It certainly did happen too often this year. ‘It’ being a trademark Mississippi State game with an extended stretch of futile play at each end, contrasted by some thrilling shows of offense and defense to stay competitive…and too often failure to finish. Tuesday’s first-round NIT matchup with Massachusetts had it all, and in extra-large doses as it went into double-overtime.
Too long. Massachusetts scored eight of eleven second-overtime points off offensive rebounds, around a clutch three-point bomb by gutsy guard Chaz Williams, as the #5 seed Minutemen knocked off #4 seed and host State. UMass (23-12) advances to face first regional seed Seton Hall this weekend.
The Bulldogs (21-12) pack everything up for another off-season of regrets and second-guessing. Just playing in the NIT was significant letdown. But losing, and in the nailbiting way they did, only punctuated the frustrations.
“Hey, it’s not going to be but one happy team,” said Coach Rick Stansbury. “Everybody else is going to have this feeling.”
Maybe so. But not many other clubs around the country were ranked as high as 15th mid-season before settling for a NIT slot. “When we first heard, we were down, nobody wanted to play,” admitted senior guard Dee Bost. “At the same time it was game time, everybody realized we had another chance to play.”
Not that the home team seemed to care much early on, spotting UMass the first eight points and trailing double-digits at halftime. When Mississippi State did decided to really play, things got much more exciting and the Bulldogs even had a shot to win in regulation, by Bost. It missed. Guard Jalen Steele had to throw in a huge trey to force the second overtime, after which State had nothing left to give.
“Congratulations to UMass, they were a terrific team,” Stansbury said. “But I was awful proud of our guys not laying down and quitting. They kept fighting and fighting and fighting.”
None more so than forward Arnett Moultrie. If the draft-rated junior does turn professional, he ended his one Mississippi State season in splendid style scoring a (MSU) career best 34 points. Of that 18 came in the first half, and he even stuck a couple of three-pointers. He certainly looked like somebody ready for the next level, other than the couple of unwise treys he tried and missed in crunch situations.
“I was out there trying to compete for a win, nothing out of the ordinary,” Moultrie shrugged. “Same game, just trying to get a win.” No, it wasn’t the same game even for a double-double, first team All-SEC forward, as Moultrie was 12-of-23 (10-of-18 inside the arc) shooting and missed just one of nine free throws. He actually had 36 points, except one basket didn’t count; it was a tip-in of a UMass miss.
Bost did complete his four-year career with a 20-point output, and added 13 to his MSU record assists total. Steele had 17 off the bench with five of his team’s dozen treys, and guard Brian Bryant 12 points. But starting center Renardo Sidney scored just three points and played 16 total minutes; none after the 13-minute mark of the second half, putting Stansbury’s comment on lack of bodies in another context.
Massachusetts was not exactly two-deep themselves; seven players took care of all but 17 out of the 250 total minutes. Not only that but one Minuteman, forward Raphieal Putney, fouled out and three more finished with four personals. State had fewer fouls and more free throws, and three more treys.
The difference? Remarkable rebounding, a 56-41 advantage in all, and 21 offensive rebounds. The Minutemen scored 24 second chance points including those decisive eight in the second overtime. By contrast State had seven putback points for the entire evening.
Williams, the 5-8 sparkplug, was superb either running the offense or taking it on himself to score with 28 points on a 16.4 average. He hit four treys with six assists and had three steals, and generally made life miserable for bigger Bulldog guards.
“He’s a tough customer, small and fast,” said Bost. “There’s a lot of guards like that that cause problems. He has a big heart.”
Center Sean Carter was big with 20 points and 12 rebounds, seven of them offensive and leading to 12 free throw chances. He made eight. Forwards Terrell Vinson and Putney had 12 and 10 points, the latter with an impressive 16 rebounds for a 185-pounder. But the difference maker might have been forward Javorn Farrell off the bench with 16 points.
UMass, playing post-season for the first time since 2008, clearly wanted to play and win and scored on the first four turns including a Williams steal-and-layup. If not for the Minutemen trying to press too hard, too soon, State might not have gotten going at all. Fortunately they were able to beat the traps for a couple of buckets, and the visitors helped by rushing and missing early outside shots.
“They pressured us and for the most part we handled it,” Stansbury said. “I don’t think we turned it over a whole lot, also we got some baskets against it.” It also helped that the Minutemen, a three-pointer offense, missed nine of 12 such tries in the first half. Otherwise this would have become an early blowout and had the tiny crowd of 2,500 exiting by halftime with the 41-31 scoreboard.
Moultrie scored a three-point play to end one half, and another to start the second. Hood hit a trey too as State showed some spark at last on offense. The defense was still lacking as Carter dunked, scored on layup, and after another MSU turnover Williams pulled on a trey for a 50-39 margin.
It was the Bulldog backcourt changing the game, aided greatly by UMass getting caught up in an end-to-end style State was better suited for. Stansbury took the chance, given the ridiculous rebounding issues, of sitting Sidney at 13:51 and not playing him again. It worked because a smaller, faster lineup sped things up. Bost and Bryant combined for ten points including a steal-and-score that finally had the home team leading, 63-62.
“We’re scrambling, those guys were really playing hard,” Stansbury said of benching the big body. “We’re having to compete and defend that ball screen. I was forced to go small, that helped us get back in the game.”
But not quite win it. Had Carter made his free throws at 1:00 the Minutemen might have, but two misses allowed Moultrie to tie it 72-72 with 41 seconds left. Williams used up all but ten ticks before flailing a layup that missed iron and shot clock alike. With 5.6 left Bost got the balldowncourt for a decent shot that rimmed awry.
State could have won in the first OT as Hood and Steele hit threes. But Farrell and Jesse Morgan answered in kind. Twice Steele had to strike from long range to tie it, the last coming from at least 24 feet away, was good at 0:21 and meant another overtime as Williams couldn’t get a good look late.
The second extra-period was all UMass on the glass with Carter getting the first four points before Williams’ key three at 3:12 for a 97-92 lead that gave them control. Bost made it easier by throwing the ball away on his last touch as a Bulldog point guard.
“That’s a tough way to go out,” said Stansbury. “But Dee has had a terrific career, Brian has played his best basketball of all at the end. Those guys will be missed.” More to the future point, will State be missing Moultrie next winter?
“Yeah, I have a timetable,” Moultrie said of his go-or-no pro decision. “The next few weeks. If I do come back, it will be to play with Hood for another year.” Noticeably not included in the comment was junior Sidney. Asked if he expects the controversial center back for one more season, “What about him?” Stansbury responded. Nor has he talked to Moultrie about the NBA yet.
As to speculations about his own status after missing the NCAAs for three-straight years, “I haven’t thought about it,” said Stansbury.
Hood is thinking ahead though. And optimistically, no matter what Moultrie decides. “I think next year we’ve got a good group of guys coming in, good character guys. So next year I look to give a good, honest effort in the game, practice, conditioning, everything.” As that invited a follow-up regarding character issues with the team that just finished, Hood cracked a door on the locker room.
“It was a piece. It didn’t start in November, it started during the summer. We just have to go back and correct it.”