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MSU's last-gasp success runs out

 

David Miller

 

STARKVILLE -- Riding a four-game winning streak, Mississippi State''s men''s basketball team had gotten by with one player carrying the scoring load and others pitching in just enough to win games. 

 

Tuesday, the Bulldogs saw that formula burn out in a 61-59 loss to Florida Atlantic (4-4).  

 

MSU (4-1) led by as much as 13 in the game, but gave up a late 16-4 run and missed four crucial free throws in the final 30 seconds.  

 

Leading scorer Ravern Johnson, who entered the game averaging 27.3 points, was held to 18 points on 6 of 16 makes from the floor. FAU''s extended zone defense held the nation''s fourth-leading scorer to just four points in the second half.  

 

The Bulldogs'' comeback blueprint -- responsible for three of its first four wins -- was exercised without much help from their bench and point guards Twany Beckham and Brian Bryant, who combined for 5 of 14 makes from the field and one assist.  

 

Despite a career-high 11 points from ailing center Elgin Bailey, the Bulldogs over-reliance on Johnson''s scoring and inability to make quick decisions against FAU''s zone ultimately cost them a win heading into a 10-day break.  

 

"I really didn''t know what to do," Johnson said. "I tried coming out a little higher; their guards basically were helping hard, or when I went baseline would follow me all the way through. They took me out of the game second half." 

 

FAU''s game plan to stop Johnson was exposed early with and-1 layups from Bailey and forward Kodi Augustus. So long as Johnson didn''t go off, Owls head coach Mike Jarvis was happy to give up a few plays to MSU''s supporting players.  

 

"We paid the price at time for extending as much as we did," Jarvis said. "I thought I was watching the parting of the Red Sea at some times, but we knew we had to contain him. I think extending out the zone did a good job." 

 

Living dangerously with mental mistakes and chasing second-half deficits has been a trend through MSU''s first five games. And it was only a matter of time before luck ran out, Bailey said. 

 

"I got concerned, but we''re pretty much working around with all our guys because we''re still a new team really," he added. "Today we just got the short end of the stick." 

 

Jarvis got tremendous play from his two forwards Brett Royster and Kore White, who led the team with 12 and 19 points, respectively. The duo combined to shoot 12 of 21 from the floor, often taking advantage of MSU''s slow reactions to help on ball screens and failure to block out on rebounds for easy dunks.  

 

Back-to-back slams from Royster and White capped the Owls'' 16-4 run midway through the second half and gave them a 50-47 lead after the team shot just 36 percent in the first half. 

 

"I think what happened was we were actually patient (and) guys actually set some screens," Jarvis said. "When you set good screens, usually the screener is open. The guys did a really good job driving off the screen and rolling to an open area." 

 

The Bulldogs watched FAU''s inside presence spurn them again inside the two-minute mark of the second half when White got a rebound off his own missed free throw, which Royster turned into another easy dunk and a 57-55 FAU lead.  

 

The Bulldogs followed with a timeout, an ill-advised 3-pointer from Johnson, and follow-up score from White. 

 

Augustus cut the FAU back to two with a pair of free throws, and after Raymond Taylor missed one of two free throws at the other end Augustus had a golden chance to turn the tide.  

 

The senior made a hard move to the basket and scored a layup against Royster, earning a trip to the line in the process. But Augustus missed from the stripe and MSU trailed 60-59. 

 

Alex Tucker made a free throw at the other end before Bryant, rescued by a senseless FAU foul, went to the line for two with 1.5 seconds left. 

 

Down 61-59, the first-year MSU guard -- running the point late in the game over starter Beckham -- missed the first free throw and intentionally missed the second.  

 

MSU managed to get an inbounds play with 0.3 seconds left but Augustus'' tip from Benock''s lob didn''t make the buzzer.  

 

As frustrating as the four missed free throws were to Stansbury, the Bulldogs'' minor mistakes throughout the game and shaky final minutes of the first half were more disappointing.  

 

The Bulldogs led 35-24 inside two minutes of the first half but watched FAU score a pair of free throws and hit a three off an offensive rebound at the buzzer.  

 

The Owls then opened the second half with a layup from White, cutting the MSU lead to 35-31. 

 

"All that stuff at the end of the game is magnified," Stansbury said. "Going to the foul line, missing free throws -- none of us like that. Unfortunately, that''s part of the game. Those things that are disappointing to me are those things right before halftime -- there''s a five-point swing right before half." 

 

Stansbury again lamented the team''s lack of options at the five as Bailey played a season-high 25 minutes and Wendell Lewis 13.  

 

Bailey''s recovery from ACL surgery has been steady but slow during MSU''s first five games as he''s been limited in quick, lateral movements. Never was that more evident than down the stretch Tuesday, especially when FAU scored off the missed free throw. Stansbury said the decision to go with Bailey down the stretch was based on the tenacity he provides, though his movement is still limited.  

 

"I''ll live with Elgin still, whatever it is right there," Stansbury said.  

 

Bailey will enjoy the break from action to help rest his knee, as he''s still in pain during practices and games. Setting season highs in minutes and points is a positive sign, however. Bailey was 4 of 6 from the floor, blocked two shots and made all three free throws.  

 

His progression is pivotal as teams focus on containing Johnson. 

 

"When they box and one Ray, and our next best shooter is on the bench, our next best option is the post," Bailey said. "We work on it everyday in practice, but when the game comes it seems like we forget." 

 

MSU returns to the court on Dec. 11, when it hosts East Tennessee State for the first of a five-games-in-five-days stretch.

 

 

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