This one hurt. We are right back on the bubble, and probably the wrong side of it, after losing at home to Mississippi State. Many of us were worried about this game for a number of reasons, and while we all know State is a reasonably talented team that has been playing well lately, it is still a bad loss at home to sub 100 team.
Things looked good early as we came out to an 11-4 lead. It was obvious we were committed to not letting Ware push us around like he did in Starkville. Jimmie seemed to be in his head a bit, and Ware had to go to the bench with a couple of fouls. Unfortunately, we could not take advantage of his time on the bench. We had a long scoring drought in the first half that allowed State to come back and take a 3 point lead into halftime. The optimistic side of me said, "we're just following the script." In our last few wins we jumped out to early leads, trailed at the half, made some adjustments and took control of the game late. The pessimistic side of me said, "uh oh, we aren't scoring and we're trailing despite Newman being out and Ware being on the bench most of the first half."
There were a lot of fireworks early in the second half. Ware picked up his 4th foul on a technical just a couple of minutes into the half. Moments later, Jimmie Taylor was called for a questionable foul, which prompted Coach Johnson to draw a technical. While that seemed to energize the crowd and the team, it didn't do anything to help the shots to start falling, and State held a 7 point lead that we were never able to overcome.
Sometimes you just have to tip your cap to the other team. State showed tremendous poise, playing without one of their best freshmen, in answering all of our runs. Every time we got the lead down to one possession with the crowd into the game, State made a play on offense. When we doubled down on Ware, their guards made their open shots.
I was little surprised they brought Ware back with almost 10 minutes remaining in the game. He immediately went to work on Donta, and I thought we were a little too slow to react and bring Jimmie back into the game. Jimmie did a good job on him earlier in the game and seemed to be in his head a bit, but Donta had no answer for him. I also thought we should have made more of an effort to get his 5th foul. State did a great job of protecting the rim, but was giving us open jump shots. Unfortunately, Art, Hale, and Retin all missed several wide open 3s that could have changed the game. It seemed like we kept opting for the open jump shots that weren't falling instead of attacking the rim, either with Retin on the dribble drive or even Jimmie in the post, to put some pressure on Ware defensively.
Retin had another solid game, but State made him earn every basket. He only made 5 of 8 from the free throw line, where the team was only 11 of 21. Even Justin, who is usually reliable at the charity stripe, only made one out of 3. We were only 6 of 21 from 3 point range. Hale had a good game, matching Retin's 22 points, but outside of Jimmie playing decent with 8 points they just didn't have any help. This game was lost primarily due to not making free throws or wide open jump shots that normally fall. Whether that was a result of the guys being a little tight due to what was suddenly on the line, or if it was just one of those off-days remains to be seen.
I was a little surprised we didn't foul down by 5 with 50 seconds to play. I understand the thinking behind just playing defense. With a stop, you get the ball back with around 20 seconds, can get a quick score then it's a one possession game, but State isn't a very good free throw shooting team and I would have extended the game to make them earn it at the line.
Up next, it doesn't get any easier as we travel to Lexington to take on the Kentucky Wildcats at Rupp Arena Tuesday night at 6 p.m. The game will be televised on ESPN. My guess is that we are going to need to end the season on a 3 game winning streak to feel good about our chances on selection Sunday.