The Tennessee Volunteers (12-9, 4-4) entered Saturday’s game with a 10-0 record when leading after halftime in 2019. So, as you can imagine, things looked pretty good as they led the Mississippi State Bulldogs (14-7, 5-3) at halftime.
The good feeling dissipated quickly, however, as Mississippi State came out and knocked down 7 of its 11 first shots - including five in a row at one point - to storm back and knock off Tennessee for its fifth SEC win of the season. It was a tale of two different halves for the Bulldogs, who looked unorganized and sluggish in the first half only to come out and basically look like world-beaters during the last 20:00 of the game.
Reggie Perry notched a double-double with 24 points and 12 rebounds, which were also team-highs. He was just 6-of-13 from the floor, but did most of his work at the charity stripe, where he made 12-of-15 attempts. DJ Davis Jr was a stud from beyond the arc, knocking down 4-of-5 shots from downtown and chipping in 20 points of his own.
Santiago Vescovi led the Vols with 16 points on 6-of-12 shooting (4-of-8 from 3), but the offense struggled to get anything going in the second half. Tennessee improved its first half point total by (+5), but shot just 39% from the the floor compared to 51% in the first half.
Robert Woodard gave the Bulldogs an early, 2-0 lead as he knocked down his first - and the first - shot attempt of the game. Nick Weatherspoon made a bucket of his own on the next possession, but Yves Pons immediately responded with a 3 to make it a 4-3 game.
Uros Plavsic made 1 of 2 free throws a bit later to tie the game up, 4-4. Good ball movement allowed John Fulkerson to find Plavsic a few plays later for an easy bucket. It was Tennessee’s first lead of the game, as they led 6-4 with 16:20 left in the first half.
But that didn’t last long. Weatherspoon drained one from the top of the key to put the Bulldogs back in front, 7-6. It was the first bucket of an eventual 9-0 run that saw the Bulldogs take a 13-6 lead. The Vols were in the middle of a 3:13 scoring drought that they needed to snap out of quickly before the game got out of hand.
Jalen Johnson broke the run and the drought with a wide-open 3 from the top of the perimeter, which gave the Vols a bit of life. Even though Perry was able to drop one in, Tennessee went on an 8-2 run to make it a 15-14 game with 10:15 left in the first half.
Vescovi helped keep it a one-point game withs seven straight points, but it was Pons who put the Vols in front, 19-17, with a 3 from the deep right corner. The perimeter game was working efficiently for the Vols, but they still needed to establish some type of post presence. An Olivier Nkamhoua bucket put Tennessee on a 7-0 run and made gave the Vols a 21-17 lead. Tennessee had made four straight shots over the run.
As expected, the Bulldogs battled back to tie the game at 21, and it was Perry who led the charge with all four points. Stewart Jr broke the tie a few possessions later with a couple of free throws and Mississippi State was back in front, 23-21, with 5:45 before halftime.
Johnson came through with a deep 3 from the right corner to put Tennessee back up, 24-23, and the Vols would hit 5 of their last 7 shots to close out the first half with a 34-28 lead. Tennessee was 14-of-27 (51.9%) from the floor, including 5-of-9 (55.6%) from 3 and 1-of-2 from the charity stripe. Johnson led the team with eight points on 3-of-4 shooting that included a 2-of-3 mark from deep.
Mississippi State, on the other hand, finished the first half on a 2:34 scoring drought. KeyShawn Feazell’s lone free throw was the only point during that span. As a team, the Bulldogs shot 10-of-23 from the floor. They weren’t hitting from outside, evidenced by the 1-of-7 stat line from behind the arc. The team was getting the job done on the inside, however, as they were able to get 10 tries from the charity stripe (they converted seven). Perry led the way with 10 points on 3-of-7 shooting, while Weatherspoon led the team in rebounds (4) and assists (3).
Tennessee’s offense was playing very well, but the defense needed to tighten up if the Vols wanted to finish the game. I know that sounds crazy after holding the Bulldogs to just 28 points in the first half, but they were getting some looks that weren’t getting knocked down. All bets are off if State starts hitting shots in the second half.
Mississippi State did just that. The Bulldogs came out and sunk a layup and a 3 from the left to pull within 35-33. Fortunately, Vescovi nailed a 3 of his own to help quell the pending run from the Bulldogs and make it a 38-33 game.
The Bulldogs hadn’t made a shot in over 2:30, but managed to cut Tennessee’s lead to 40-39 with 15:59 left in the game. Free throws were the key and were responsible for the team’s last six points.
And it became the last eight points as Abdul Ado hit both of his free throws to give the Bulldogs a 41-40 lead. Perry followed up with two buckets of his own to put the Bulldogs up, 45-40. It was a 10-0 run over the last 2:36 that also saw the Vols go 0-of-4 from the floor.
The shots kept falling for the Bulldogs, just as feared. Back-to-back 3s had them up, 53-45, and the crowd was officially in a frenzy.
Could Tennessee weather the storm?
The situation became really ugly as the Bulldogs’ lead grew to 59-49, but Tennessee was given a small ray of hope when Vescovi was fouled as he sunk a 3 from the deep corner. That ray of hope shrank, however, as he wasn’t able to convert the four-point play. The Vols trailed, 59-52, with 9:22 left in the game.
That would be the last bit of hope that the Vols - and Vol fans - would experience for the rest of the game. Mississippi would go on to feast on the Big Orange for the duration of the game en route to an 86-73 win.
Tennessee will travel to Tuscaloosa to take on the Alabama Crimson Tide. Tipoff is currently set for Tuesday, February 4 at 7PM EST.