February 17, 2017 10:46:33 AM
STARKVILLE -- Recent opponents of the Mississippi State men's basketball team aren't afraid to say the Bulldogs are coming closer to beating teams at the top of the league.
"(MSU coach Ben Howland is) doing a great job. For them to be as young as they are, they're so much better than they were back in November and December," South Carolina coach Frank Martin said after a four-point victory over MSU. "That's a credit to those kids."
As of late, being better than they were a few months ago is still a few points short.
The link between being within striking range of a quality opponent and winning has been difficult. The Bulldogs are 3-6 in Southeastern Conference games decided by 10 or fewer points, including 1-5 in their last six such games. MSU will get its next chance to break its three-game skid at 1 p.m. Saturday against Florida. ESPN will broadcast the game live. It also can be heard on WKBB-FM 100.9.
"We know we can play with those teams," MSU sophomore guard Xavian Stapleton said. "Being right there kind of hurts, but it motivates us seeing that we can play with those teams. It motivates us to work harder and get some wins."
MSU's last two losses -- the four-point loss to South Carolina and a five-point loss at Georgia on Tuesday -- were products of second-half miscues.
Against South Carolina, MSU held a four-point lead with nine minutes to go before the Gamecocks used a 7-0 run in a span of 1 minute, 50 seconds to seize the momentum. MSU regained the lead with a little more than five minutes left before a 9-0 run by South Carolina effectively ended the game. MSU didn't get within one possession after that.
"Watching the game again was more painful than watching it live because you could see we were right there. We had a chance to close it," Howland said. "We're up 58-54 and can't have the sense of urgency to get a stop. They get a three-point play to cut it back to one."
Against Georgia, a Stapleton 3-pointer tied the game at 54 with 6:29 left. Georgia then used a 12-3 run to pull away. It led by as many at least seven in the final three minutes.
The first half was the problem spot against Auburn and Tennessee. MSU allowed a season-high 98 points at Auburn. Against the Volunteers, the Bulldogs had to make a near school-record comeback to earn the victory.
The return of point guard I.J. Ready, who is the team's only senior, could make a difference. Ready returned from a four-game absence due to injury and played 22 minutes at Georgia.
"I think we're real close," Howland said. "Look at a game like (Saturday against South Carolina) and it's a game we could've won. We've got to have a little more experience and understanding."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson