February 21, 2013 1:27:04 PM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. --The script is familiar.
Jalen Steele returns after being inactive for several games and the Mississippi State University men's basketball loses to a school from the state of Alabama.
The University of Alabama used its methodical style and size advantage in the front court Wednesday night to defeat MSU 64-56 at Coleman Coliseum. The loss extended MSU's losing streak to 11 games.
"We can't just show up and play anymore because clearly that hadn't been working in the past games," Steele said.
Steele, a junior guard and the most experienced player on the active roster, returned from an suspension for violating team rules to score a team-high 15 points, but it wasn't enough against an opponent that scored 23 points off 23 turnovers.
"The thing I was most concerned about tonight was having our guys go out and compete and fight, so I thought they did a great job of that tonight," said MSU coach Rick Ray, whose team slipped to 7-17 and 2-11 in the Southeastern Conference. The 11-game losing streak, all in the SEC, matches the second-longest streak in school history. "Now we went back to some of our bad habits offensively near the end."
On Dec. 30, 2012, Steele returned from his fractured right wrist injury and had 10 points in 27 minutes in a 59-57 loss to Alabama A&M University at Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville. Nearly two months later, MSU was without suspended sophomore forward Roquez Johnson. Alabama (18-8, 10-3) capitalized on MSU's lack of depth in the post to score 30 points in the paint.
Ray hopes the return of Wendell Lewis for a fifth year and the signing of Findlay Prep (Nev.) center Fallou Ndoye will help solve the team's front-court depth issues. On Wednesday, though, freshman center Gavin Ware committed the team's first foul 1 minute, 4 seconds into the game, forcing MSU to go with a lineup that featured East Mississippi Community College forward Colin Borchert at center for the next four minutes.
"I'm just so used to it now because we're so shorthanded, and it's something that has gotten to the point where I practice it every day," Borchert said. "We got very excited tonight when we got it to down four but then made so silly mistakes."
Steele's 3-pointer trimmed Alabama's lead to 47-43 with 4:30 to go. But MSU committed nine of its 23 turnovers in that final stretch, which allowed Alabama to push the lead back to double digits. The Crimson Tide responded with a 3-pointer by Rodney Cooper and a layup by Trevor Lacey to kick the lead back to nine. They extended the lead to 15 points before MSU closed the game on a 9-2 run.
MSU's 23 turnovers were its third most in a game this season. It committed 29 and 24 in losses to the University of Arkansas and Texas A&M University. It had 21 in the fist game against Alabama. MSU is last in the SEC in assist-to-turnover ratio.
At the post-game media conference, Ray emphasized he believes MSU has a bright future with freshmen Ware, guard Craig Sword, and Jackson native Fred Thomas. Those three came into the game averaging 29.1 points per game, with Sword leading the team in scoring at 10.2 ppg. Against Alabama, the trio combined for 15 points. Ware had nine points and six rebounds, but Thomas was 0-for-7 from the field and didn't score in 30 minutes. It was his second scoreless game of the season.
"I think all three of our freshmen are going to have a chance to be All-SEC players if we're good," Ray said. "If we're still a bad team by the time those guys are juniors and seniors, they won't have that chance. (Florida coach) Billy Donovan told me after we played them that 'those three freshman you have are really good players'."
Despite going with an athletic four-guard lineup to energize its full-court press, Alabama outrebounded a smaller MSU team on the offensive end 9-7 in the first half.
Alabama's Rodney Cooper (20 points, 10 rebounds) had his first career double-double. The sophomore guard sliced through the perimeter defense for easy buckets and trips to the free-throw line on a consistent basis.
The victory moved the Crimson Tide into sole possession of second place in the SEC, one game behind the University of Florida. The top four teams in the league will get byes for the SEC tournament March 13-17 in Nashville, Tenn.
Alabama, which entered the game with a RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) of 59, needs to pile up victories to improve its résumé to offset losses to Mercer University and Tulane University in the non-conference and at the University of Tennessee and at Auburn University in the SEC. Alabama, which has won four in a row, has road games remaining at the University of Florida, at the University of Mississippi, and at LSU, and home games left against Auburn and the University of Georgia.
"Everything we want for this season is still in front of these guys, so it's up to me to be able to point out to them the intensity level has to be there every time we play,' Alabama coach Anthony Grant said. "We know all of goals are still attainable."
Despite his team's seventh-straight victory at Coleman Coliseum, Grant was disappointed with the Crimson Tide's effort in the second half. Still, he said Alabama showed it can beat anybody when it comes to play.
"When we don't, we can get beat by anybody because we played a team tonight in Mississippi State that outplayed in a lot of ways," Grant said.
MSU will play host to Vanderbilt University at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Humphrey Coliseum.