"They hit every shot they put up," Bulldog guard Jalen Steele said. "We closed out on them, they still made the shot. We did everything we could, they still made the shot."
Alabama certainly did hit everything fired from long-range to open the decisive half. They led 30-22 at the break largely by attacking the rim directly, much as Mississippi State had scouted. What they did immediately after intermission caught everyone by surprise, likely themselves included. Guard Trevor Lacey, scoreless for the first half, ripped three-straight longballs.
The first was forced under shot-clock pressure and went. The next two were after turnovers where State stopped the initial break but Lacey drifted out for uncontested strikes. "He was able to open it up for us a little bit," Coach Anthony Grant said. Rodney Cooper and Levi Randolph followed that example for threes of their own and a 45-22 margin. There were 17 minutes still to play but this one was over.
"I'm really disappointed with the way our guys came out and played tonight," Coach Rick Ray said after his first home loss as Bulldog boss. "We've lost games and been beaten badly but I thought our competitive nature was good. I didn't feel that way tonight."
Lacey was just one of the four Crimson Tide players in double-digits and least of the quartet. Randolph led everyone with 18 points, 11 of that in the first half, and hit two treys; while Cooper sank three threeballs en route to 17 points. Forward Nick Jacobs came off the Alabama bench for 16 points and 11 rebounds, nine of those in the last half when State was forcing shots and missing most.
Alabama was able to control the contest despite the absence of point guard Trevor Releford after a Monday ankle sprain. Not that it appeared they were missing much. "A lot of their players did pick up the slack," Steele said. "I guess we kind of slacked-off when we found out he didn't play. But we shouldn't have played that bad."
The bad-ness extended into almost every aspect. Such as 36% shooting for the game and 5-of-18 work at the arc, though that was actually a bit better than their usual outside-percentage. Getting beat 35-23 on the glass was frustrating but understandable against the bigger Alabama lineup.
What rankled Ray more was 21 turnovers. Yes, he expected a lot of defensive pressure even without Releford around. In fact, "Our guys let-down right away when Releford wasn't playing," Ray said. "I also thought our two practices we were satisfied with the way we played in a 2-0 start."
All this, as well as Tide defensive quickness, contributed to State losing the ball more often than they made baskets. Four different Dogs had four official turnovers so everybody got in on the act. "We tried to break the press with the dribble too much," said Ray. "I also felt our guys left the ballhandler out on an island and didn't make themselves available."
Getting across halfcourt wasn't enough though. In fact Ray said beating the press was still an Alabama success too often as Dogs didn't slow down and run a regular offense. Center Gavin Ware took just three shots in 33 minutes, and didn't score until seven minutes after halftime. Forward Rocquz Johnson, the team's scoring leader, was 0-of-5 trying to beat bigger defenders around the rim.
"We were playing too fast-paced," Steele said. "They were trying to speed our team up which they did, we were going with the flow and turned over the ball."
Grant was certainly satisfied with the results. "We thought we could have some success pressing and taking the tempo up against them. And over the course of 40 minutes it took effect tonight.'
Bulldog guard Fred Thomas got a couple of treys to drop early on and State led 19-18 at 7:36, before Randolph drove for a short jumper. The game was really lost as Dogs kept trying their outside luck the rest of the half and missed all but one, by forward Colin Borchert. Alabama eased ahead working inside, then flipped the script after intermission.
"It was a great win for our team tonight," Grant said. "I thought the focus was defensively, we felt we need to come in and do a great job on the defensive end. And I thought our guys met the challenge. We were able to get some shots to fall which opened the game up for us."
Thomas' 10 points paced State while Sword added nine. Ware finished with just four points and five rebounds while Johnson managed three free throws. "I don't think our guys really searched them out," Ray said. "And I don't think those guys worked hard enough to get position to get the ball." Steele was 2-of-8 shooting for five points.
Having taken their first SEC setback, the Bulldogs are on the road back-to-back with trips to Tennessee and Arkansas. "It's a quick turnaround," Ray said. "And you can't go hard tomorrow no matter how bad you lost, you have to be smart. It's more mental preparation tomorrow, and physical preparation Friday."