February 22, 2014 8:22:37 PM
STARKVILLE -- Rick Ray is tired of his basketball team getting pats on the back for playing hard. In the eyes of the second-year Bulldogs coach, the time for excuses making for his program is over.
Following the team's ninth straight loss and Ray's 15th straight loss in February, Ray didn't want to paint a brighter picture of a 73-69 defeat to a Arkansas team that has struggled on the road.
"It's to be expected," Ray said as he shrugged his shoulders in frustration. "I don't want to belittle it but you're supposed play hard."
MSU (13-14, 3-11 in Southeastern Conference) found themselves in a early hole again due to a barrage of three-pointers led by a completely unknown element. Sophomore guard Anthlon Bell, who had just 11 total minutes played in the last five games, led the Razorbacks with 12 first-half points as they pushed out to a 32-21 lead in a frantic pace.
"I don't think anybody on their team at that point was a starter," MSU sophomore guard Craig Sword said. "When he started hitting shots, coach said we're going to have to get on him. It was a big shock."
During its nine-game losing streak, the loss to Arkansas represented the smallest margin of defeat during the stretch but Ray was unable to come up with several positive aspects to the loss. The fifth straight loss at home put MSU below the .500 mark for the first time in the 2013-14 season.
"I know some people want to give these guys credit for playing hard through the losing streak but if you're not playing hard then you're not giving yourself a chance to win," Ray said. "With us having so few numbers, if you're not playing hard then you have no chance to win."
Ray introduced a new lineup and rotation to Saturday's game in a two-fold solution to try and stop the slide. To counter Anderson's 94-feet of pressure defense, Ray wanted a second ball hander on the floor so freshman IJ Ready was paired with Trivante Bloodman. Two elements of the Bulldogs consistent 10-player rotation were benched as Fred Thomas and Tyson Cunningham failed to play a single minute Saturday.
"I think that gave us the best chance to win today," Ray said. "Those guys are not in the dog house."
Ray's decision marked the first time in Thomas' 58-game career where he didn't move off the bench and the 6-foot-5 wing player from Jackson had started the last 16 games. Instead of Thomas, Ray went with junior college transfer Tevin Moore for a career high 17 minutes. The 6-foot-3 guard from Olive Branch scored five points, grabbed four rebounds and it a three-pointer in the first half to keep the Bulldogs deficit close.
"Tevin is probably been the most enjoyable kid I've ever coached in my career," Ray said after the game. "He's never complained and I just thought we deserved to give him a chance. Hopefully he starts to feel comfortable with what he's doing out on the court."
Arkansas (18-9, 7-7 in Southeastern Conference) used its frantic pace under head coach Mike Anderson to cause 16 turnovers off 12 Razorbacks steals. According to Ken Pomeroy, a national statistical college basketball analyst, the Razorbacks are seventh in the country in pace of play.
"That's what we do," Anderson said with a smile on his face. "We're going to push that tempo and I thought with them being shorthanded, we were able to wear them down by the end."
Bell finished with a team-high 19 points in just 17 minutes. The sophomore guard from Memphis, Tenn., wasn't enough of a factor to register on the MSU coaching staff. Ray admitted after the loss Bell "wasn't on the scouting report" and MSU players expressed shock that he was the catalyst to their early offensive momentum.
MSU came into the contest third in the SEC in defending the three-point arc but allowed the Razorbacks to shoot 7-of-17 from three-point range Saturday. Ray credited that to MSU's ability to close out on shooters. Ray has been extra critical of his defense after giving up 92 points in back-to-back games to Auburn and LSU.
"We're already a small team so if we don't close out with our hands up, then it's like they're just shooting with nobody else in the gym," Ray said.
In the seventh time he's come off the bench in his 56-game career, Colin Borchert led all scorers with 21 points and seven rebounds in 31 minutes. After receiving a technical foul at LSU earlier in the week, Borchert came off the bench for Roquez Johnson and was forced to play a lot of minutes due to sophomore center Gavin Ware getting in foul trouble once again.
MSU tried to manage a last ditch comeback with a 7-minute defensive stand as the Razorbacks scored just three points over the final 6 minutes and 45 seconds. A jumper by Michael Qualls stood as the only field goal in that stretch as the lead slowly dipped to four. With 19 seconds left in regulation and MSU down 73-69, Ray again saw his team miscommunicate his instructions from the bench as a awkward possession ended with a desperation three-pointer by Moore in the corner after Borchert and Craig Sword fought over a pass.
"It was a communication of their full court defense and us just not being aware being out there," Borchert said.
MSU remains home to host Tennessee at 7 p.m. Wednesday. That contest will be televised regionally by SEC TV.
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.
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