Don't tell this MSU basketball team that they're only supposed to win five or so games this year. The Bulldogs have won three-straight games and have started 2-0 in the SEC under first-year head coach Rick Ray. They used a 10-point, second half turn around to seal the deal on the road against the Georgia Bulldogs Saturday afternoon.
Just three day after winning their conference lid-lifter despite not hitting a three pointer, the Bulldogs suddenly caught fire. Most importantly, they caught fire right when they needed to. The Maroon and White came out hot defensively and offensively as they started the ball game with five straight points, all by junior guard Jalen Steele, hitting a three pointer and a couple of free throws.
MSU used their defense and early 5-5 shooting to take the 11-5 lead at the first media timeout. But fouls, which would affect the Bulldogs the rest of the way, and the emergence of Georgia's best player, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, got the Georgia Dogs back in it at 16 all.
The two teams, as expected, had moments where the shot wouldn't fall. They also had moments of sloppy play. But defensive intensity was at a high for the first 20 minutes of the game. One area where MSU really struggled was getting the defensive rebounds against a slightly bigger Georgia front court.
Put backs from Georgia, and MSU foul trouble, kept the Maroon and White Bulldogs from keeping the lead and stretching it out. Meanwhile, Caldwell-Pope was giving Georgia their first lead of the first half with a three pointer with just under seven minutes on the clock at 24-23.
MSU would take their largest deficit of the day on a layup with five minutes remaining and a 30-23 lead for the UGA. The 12-0 run is something that MSU has seen nearly every ball game. The team struggles to find an offensive player to end these runs before they get started. But one thing this team has done better as of late, is make sure that they find away to claw themselves back in it before it gets out of hand. And that's exactly what they did.
Gavin Ware would get the lay-in to stop the UGA run and get it back to five immediately. MSU would tie the game at 31 before a layup by Kenny Gaines. But Craig Sword, who had a tremendous first half, would knock down the Bulldogs' fifth three and give the lead back at 34-33. After two free throws, MSU hurried the ball down the floor with Thomas jacking up a long three. The miss bounced out to Sword inside the free throw line where he buried a shot at the buzzer and MSU regained the lead at the half, 36-35.
The two teams played even closer in the second half. Following the wooing of the announcers over Caldwell Pope's 14-point first half performance, he would not make another field goal. With that came frustrations for the UGA offense. But the MSU Bulldogs couldn't stay out of foul trouble. Three players would pick up four fouls throughout the half and would keep them thin in the post.
But UGA was unable to take advantage at the line with a 19-32 showing.
Through the first eight minutes, neither team took a significant advantage as the lead for either team grew no larger than three points by Mississippi State. After a Jalen Steele three with 11:30 left, however, MSU would take their largest lead of the half at 50-44. But Georgia would come right back tying it at 50 with a Tim Dixon layup at nine minutes remaining.
Rick Ray took a smart 30-second timeout to calm down his young team and it seemed to work as they responded better than they had all game long. Tyson Cunningham turned the inbound into two points and the lead once again.
After a couple of bad possessions by each team and one free throw by UGA, it was time for MSU to take advantage. Rocquez Johnson started things with a nice one-on-one move to the hoop and the score. After a stop, Steele would take the deep two and hit nothing but the bottom of the net. He would not be done.
In consecutive possessions, Steele would knock down three pointers and give MSU their largest lead of the afternoon at 62-51 and only five minutes remaining.
The lead would get as close as seven, but MSU found a way to hold on and win their second SEC game in as many trys, 72-61.
The win, once again, defied the odds. A team going 100% for 60 minutes with basically seven players. Foul trouble seemed to not matter as the team got stronger as the game drew on. The 21 points by Steele were a career high and his four threes were reminiscent of such performances as Vanderbilt on the road last season, as well as his performance in the SEC tourney against this UGA team. He also grinded out seven rebounds.
Craig Sword managed just four second half points, but had another solid performance Saturday with a 16-point game on 6-10 shooting and a couple of threes.
An all-around effort by each player continues to make this team one of the more fun teams to watch in the history of this program. Just a few months removed from total devastation, this team is at .500 overall and 2-0 in conference play. As far as I'm concerned, they've already accomplished more than most thought. It only gets better folks.
So let's see a capacity crowd at the Hump Wednesday night at 8 p.m. when Alabama comes to town and this team looks to pull off another feat.