January 31, 2010 12:18:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Losing streaks and poor shooting were the main topics of conversation prior to Saturday''s Southeastern Conference Western Division matchup here between the Mississippi State and LSU men''s basketball teams.
More than any other phase of the game, a woeful shooting percentage has proven to be the culprit for MSU''s recent mini-slump, which resulted in a pair of setbacks after a promising 3-0 start in SEC play.
In losses at Alabama and at Arkansas in the past week, MSU connected on just 41 of 130 (31.5 percent) shots and was 7 of 44 (15.9 percent) from beyond the 3-point arc.
Those figures improved somewhat against visiting LSU, however, as MSU snapped its two-game SEC losing streak with a 67-51 victory. The Bulldogs shot a respectable 42 percent (21 of 50) from the field and 31.8 percent (7 of 22) from 3-point range.
"It wasn''t very much of an offensive game for either team," said MSU head coach Rick Stansbury, who became only the 20th coach in SEC history to win 100 league games. "We couldn''t score very well in the first half and we couldn''t make very many shots."
MSU converted three of its first six shots, including a trey by Phil Turner, for an early 7-0 lead. It bolted to a 20-6 advantage following a Ravern Johnson dunk with just under five-and-a-half minutes left in the half. But LSU cut the lead to 20-13 on three consecutive baskets by Tasmin Mitchell, before Barry Stewart answered with a 3-pointer with 43 seconds left to send the Bulldogs into the locker room with a 23-15 lead.
"It wasn''t pretty," Stansbury said of his team''s first-half offensive showing.
The Bulldogs were 8-for-24 from the field, but only 3-for-13 from 3-point range the first 20 minutes. Thankfully, over the same span LSU made only 5 of 20 shots -- none from beyond the 3-point line, as Mitchell accounted for LSU''s first field goal with 10:12 left in the first half.
Stansbury said defense was the big difference in the game.
"We stayed in it because of our ability to defend," Stansbury said. "They had eight points with seven minutes left in the first half."
On the opposite end, MSU''s shooting accuracy improved considerably in the second half, as the Bulldogs bagged 13 of 26 from the field (4 of 9 from beyond the arc) to maintain a double-digit lead, which peaked at 18 points three times late in the game. Stewart''s three free throws with 2 minutes, 26 seconds to play gave the Bulldogs a 63-45 margin, a jumper by Johnson pushed the score to 65-47 with 1:31 left and then a short jumper by John Riek made it 67-49 with 11 seconds left.
Stansbury, who is 15-11 against LSU, credited ball movement and unselfish play for his team''s second-half improvement.
"The second half we really were able to move the ball and share the ball a little more," he said.
Free throw shooting and a balanced scoring attack didn''t hurt the Bulldogs'' chances either, as MSU was 18-for-26 from the charity stripe and had four players in double figures. Johnson led the way with 15 points, followed by Turner and Stewart with a dozen each, and Jarvis Varnado with 11.
Dee Bost, averaging 11.9 points per game, scored just two points, but the sophomore guard handed out five assists and had four rebounds.
"He did OK," Stansbury said. "We need him to play better, but there was a positive assist-to-turnover (5-2), which is good. For the first time in four or five games he didn''t lead us in shot attempts, which can also be a positive stat. Overall he did OK, but he can always play better."
Varnado, who came into the game as the nation''s second leading shot blocker with 102, picked up four more to increase his career total to 500. He also finished with a team-high 10 rebounds -- five of which came at the offensive end.
"Jarvis Varnado is very tough on the inside," LSU coach Trent Johnson said.
Experience and talent were the difference makers in the setback, according to Johnson.
"Mississippi State is a very good basketball team," Johnson said. "They have a lot of good players. We knew going in that it was going to be a tough challenge for our team. Most of the teams we are playing are more experienced and have more talent, so it''s always a challenge for us as a team."
Tasmin Mitchell (game-high 26 points) was the only LSU player in double figures. He was 6-for-6 at the free-throw line and grabbed a team-high 10 rebounds in 39 minutes.
"I thought he played well," Johnson said. "He always works extremely hard. It''s been a disappointment for him this year because he is used to winning."
Mitchell said inexperience and a lack of rhythm had a lot to do with the loss.
"We have a lot of young guys on our team this year and they really don''t understand the concept of SEC play yet," Mitchell said. "We always want the team to come into a different atmosphere and play well, but we didn''t get our rhythm this game."
With the win, MSU improved to 16-5 and 4-2 in league play. LSU fell to 9-12 and 0-7.
MSU hits the road Wednesday for a game against Vanderbilt, followed by a Saturday date at Florida, while LSU plays host to Tennessee on Thursday and Kentucky next Saturday.
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