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Tennessee comes up short on the road to Mississippi State

A tough one.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Four-Pittsburgh vs Mississippi State Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The start was less than ideal for Tennessee in Starkville. The Volunteers knew they had a tough test ahead at ‘The Hump,’ and the Bulldogs didn’t disappoint early. Mississippi State controlled this one early, racing out to a 35-22 lead at halftime.

Mississippi State was hitting shots and playing aggressive defense. Tennessee could hardly even hold on the ball, seemingly. The Volunteers turned it over ten times in the first half, as the Bulldogs suffocated Tennessee seemingly every possession down the stretch of the first half.

Tolu Smith, who just recently returned from injury, was everything for the Bulldogs early on. Tennessee frankly just didn’t have any answers for his offense in the paint. That really didn’t change throughout the game.

Zakai Zeigler was about the only positive in the first for Tennessee, as the junior point guard kept Tennessee afloat. Still, a 13 point deficit on the road seemed like a steep hill to climb.

Zeigler kept the pressure on to open the second half for the Volunteers, scoring seven quick points to cut the lead down to single digits. Tennessee weathered another quick storm from Mississippi State, but finally put a sequence together. Dalton Knecht came alive for a dunk, layup and a couple of three-pointers, while the Tennessee defense forced a couple of turnovers.

That sequence turned out to be a 9-0 run for the Vols, which cut the lead down to three points at 46-49. Very quickly, this game had turned on a dime.

Tennessee’s defense was rolling at this point. Steals all over the court kept the pressure on Mississippi State, and Knecht was making them pay. His offensive explosion — along with more brilliance from Zeigler — had the Vols ready to strike.

The Bulldogs would stop the bleeding, though. They kept attacking the paint and finding success, but Knecht kept answering on the other end. Another three cut the lead to four, then an Aidoo putback cut it back to two. Knecht went to the line and tied it at 62 on the following possession.

Jonas Aidoo, who was whistled for a few ticky-tack fouls in the second half, fouled out with five minutes to play. Obviously, that’s a big loss with how effective Tolu Smith was on the offensive end.

At the under four break, the game was tied at 63-63 with Smith heading to the line.

Smith hit the first and missed the second, but Josh Hubbard would make up for it on the next trip. Knecht was blocked, then Hubbard took one high off the glass over Tobe Awaka to take a three-point lead.

Santiago Vescovi picked up his dribble and turned it over on the next possession. A Tennessee turnover at a bad time gave the Bulldogs a four-point lead, and the Vols suddenly needed to come up with something. However, Zeigler came up empty on the three and Mississippi State found an offensive rebound and a bucket to gain a six point lead.

Just when you were ready to bury Tennessee, Zakai Zeigler ripped off six straight points. Free throws, a floater and a steal/layup put the Volunteers right back in this one, trailing 71-69. Knecht would later tie it with a slam at 72 each.

Mississippi State would have the final say — and you knew where they were going. Tolu Smith got the ball on the block and went to work on Awaka, who couldn’t stop him. Smith connected and drew the foul to put the Bulldogs ahead by three.

Zeigler couldn’t hit his long three at the other end.

Mississippi State held on to win what turned into a wild one, 77-72.

Smith ended with 23 for the Bulldogs, while Josh Hubbard poured in 25. Knecht overcame that slow start to end up with 28, and Zeigler added another 26. Unfortunately for Rick Barnes, production elsewhere was non-existent. Vescovi scoring two and James scoring three just isn’t going to cut it. Aidoo fouling out with five minutes to play certainly was a game changer as well.

Tennessee will move on to face Georgia on the road on Saturday (Noon ET).