Mississippi State’s Nick Weatherspoon drives past Tennessee’s Jordan Bowen in their game Tuesday night at Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville. No. 16 Tennessee won 76-54. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff Buy this photo.
February 28, 2018 10:28:16 AM
STARKVILLE -- Hundreds of Mississippi State fans had their backs to the action and were trudging to the exits of Humphrey Coliseum as Xavian Stapleton collected a rebound.
With MSU trailing by 19 points, Stapleton launched a pass to Quinndary Weatherspoon as he crossed the half-court line. The pass sailed over Weatherspoon's shoulder into the MSU bench. Stapleton's shoulders sunk. Nick Weatherspoon paced to the bench with his hands hanging on the back of his head.
Those were the reactions of a team running out of chances.
The No. 16 Tennessee men's basketball team dealt a serious blow to MSU's NCAA tournament hopes Tuesday with a 76-54 victory.
The game was MSU's final guaranteed opportunity against a ranked team. The loss dropped the Bulldogs (21-9, 9-8 Southeastern Conference) to 18-2 at home. It also left MSU with even more work to do after it started the night as one of the first teams left out of NCAA tournament projections.
"It's going to be very tough for us to get in, but we're not going to give up," Nick Weatherspoon said. "We can make a run in the SEC tournament. We're still a team and we're not going to give up."
MSU's NCAA tournament hopes were at their most lively early in the game, when MSU it was hitting corner 3-pointers and shooting 50 percent from the field to energize a crowd of 7,548 that made the Hump a hostile environment.
The unraveling that followed engulfed every aspect of the team.
"We had the lead 20-13, got sped up with the excitement of the game and didn't handle it well," Howland said.
A 3-pointer by Quinndary Weatherspoon with 9 minutes, 44 seconds remaining gave MSU a 25-18 lead. Tennessee (22-7, 12-5) outscored MSU 58-29 from that point. The offensive struggles were most obvious in the second half, when MSU shot 28.6 percent from the field and was 1-for-9 from 3-point range. The cool down affected MSU's most potent scorers evenly: Quinndary Weatherspoon had 10 points at halftime and finished with 17, junior forward Aric Holman scored just three second-half points to end with 10 and Nick Weatherspoon scored four in the second half to end with 11.
"We started taking some quick shots, I think," Quinndary Weatherspoon said. "Just being impatient, ready to score the ball instead of being patient and getting good shots."
On the other end, all Tennessee needed was forward Admiral Schofield. His 24 points and seven rebounds unraveled MSU's defensive efforts. He took 18 of Tennessee's 48 field goal attempts, 37.5 percent. It was a season-high in field goal attempts for Schofield, whose season includes five conference games with fewer than 10 attempts.
"I promise you that's how we always want to play," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. "Some games, guys get it going. Tonight, we were having success and we stayed with it, and we didn't always do that in the past."
The win helped Tennessee move into a tie for first place in the SEC after Arkansas defeated No. 14 Auburn 91-82 in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
MSU tried everything to stop Schofield. After Holman and fellow starter Abdul Ado had their turns, MSU put Xavian Stapleton on him for a spell. In the final minutes, Schofield scored on freshman forward KeyShawn Feazell.
"I thought we didn't do as good a job as we did in the first half of pressing in on them," Howland said. "They're getting to the elbows and looking right inside. We talked about it and worked on it, but we didn't do a good enough job on it, and Schofield in particular. Schofield absolutely murdered us inside."
Quinndary Weatherspoon recognized the defensive breakdown in the second half, but he didn't know how it happened. He said after the game he was turning his focus to MSU's regular-season finale Saturday at LSU.
That's what MSU did after it suffered consecutive losses to Missouri (in overtime) and Vanderbilt (on a buzzer-beater) and then won three-straight games. MSU will have to do it again to rekindle its NCAA tournament hopes.
"We just have to get the LSU win," Quinndary Weatherspoon said. "This game is over. It's past us. We can't keep our heads down and get beat at LSU.
"We have to keep working even harder. I know that's what we're going to do Thursday."
The loss dropped MSU from the top four in the SEC to a tie for sixth with Missouri. Those two teams are a game ahead of Alabama, Texas A&M, Georgia, and LSU in the loss column.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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