By MATTHEW STEVENS
Mississippi State head coach Rick Stansbury may have asked the question most members of his fan base are asking at this moment.
“Where are you going?” Stansbury said.
For the second straight game, MSU fell in a tight game to a mid-major opponent after leading at halftime. State now has three more regular season games at home before they get highly-acclaimed sophomore forward Renardo Sidney back in the lineup and nearly a month before junior point guard Dee Bost returns.
Meanwhile a scrappy East Tennessee State team dominated the rebounding margin and keep State’s offense in check with a zone defense leading to a 63-62 upset win in front of 3,382 furious fans at Humphrey Coliseum Saturday night.
“Any time as a mid-major you can go in and beat an SEC team on the road obviously it’s a big win,” East Tennessee State head coach Murry Bartow said. “Obviously they are going to be a different team with those two guys out and maybe we caught them at a good time."
Bartow, who’s father Gene is most noted for taking over the UCLA program for the legendary John Wooden and starting the basketball program at UAB, went to a 2-3 zone that shaded toward MSU’s shooters the entire evening limiting the Bulldogs points in the paint to 10 in the second half.
The most frustrating aspect of State’s second-straight collapse is with 34 seconds left Stansbury had the basketball in the hands of a senior leader Ravern Johnson but East Tennessee State point guard Sheldon Cooley gave the Bucs (4-4) life by poking the ball away at halfcourt for his only steal of the game.
When ETSU guard Justin Tubbs missed the back-end of a bonus end free throw, State appeared to have escaped another close home game but the loose ball was knocked out to the top of the key in the hands of a Bucs player allowing the road team another chance to win.
“You got to finish off the game mentally,” Stansbury said. “Just didn’t play very smart right there.”
After a timeout by Bartow, senior guard Micah Williams spun in the lane and connected on a floater off the backboard square in front of two Mississippi State defenders for the game’s winning basket.
“That’s the strength of our team getting in the lane,” Williams said. "I just made the move and was fortunate that the ball went in the basket.”
Stansbury drew up a play with his final timeout to get forward Kodi Augustus either a bucket from point-blank range or to the foul line and like the senior post player said “neither one happened.”
Augustus got the ball underneath the hoop but was unable to convert and the senior from Baton Rouge, La., was shocked that a whistle wasn’t blown before the final horn blared.
“I thought I got whacked but they didn’t call it,” Augustus said. “I was still obviously trying to make it but I thought I got fouled.”
Mississippi State (4-2) went the final 8 minutes of the contest with only one field goal and that offensive inefficiency was what kept State’s second-half lead to never climb higher than five.
East Tennessee State, who had lost two straight road games before coming into Starkville, hit 50 percent from both the field and from beyond the three-point arc as the senior guard duo Mike Smith and Williams combined for 38 points.
“Probably the thing they did better tonight than they’d done in the past is shoot the basketball,” Stansbury said. “They’re a 28-29 percent three-point shooting team and at halftime they’re 6-for-10.”
Mississippi State got 21 points from Johnson but the rest of the Bulldogs starting five only totaled 24 points as foul trouble plagued Augustus to a 2-for-8 shooting performance and State missed all eight three-point attempts in the second half.
“With the team they’ve got right now, the whole thought defensively is keep Johnson below his average,” Bartow said. “Take Johnson and Augustus out and they just don’t have another player that can go for 18-20 on a given night.”
The Bulldogs now must regroup in less than 16 hours as MSU faces North Carolina A&T at 1 p.m. today at Humphrey Coliseum for the second leg of a five-game in five-day stretch.