STARKVILLE — Wednesday’s upset is exactly why the executives of the 2K Classic made this an invitational event and not a traditional tournament.
The University of Akron men’s basketball team’s 68-58 victory against an out-of-sync Mississippi State team in front of a stunned 6,897 fans at Humphrey Coliseum didn’t earn the Zips at trip to Madison Square Garden next week, but it gave them a season-opening victory against a major program.
“I like the competition level, so from that point yeah, I regret not being able to compete against the best,” Akron coach Keith Dambrot said. “It’s fair. Nobody in New York wants to see us.”
The victory gives Dambrot’s squad a potential a résumé builder when it comes time to pick the field for the 2012 NCAA tournament. The Zips are one of 20 Division I programs to have won at least 20 games in each of the past six seasons.
“I think it was an upset, but our guys have been in the postseason a lot, not our younger guys, but the foundation of our program has been our older guys teaching the younger guys,” Dambrot said. “We’ve been in a lot of big ballgames, and I think it showed.”
In 2007, Gardner-Webb University defeated No. 20 University of Kentucky 84-68 at Rupp Arena. As a result, preseason tournament directors across the country panicked about having mid-major programs qualify the semifinal rounds of their events that would be on national television. That victory nearly four years ago guaranteed MSU a spot against No. 20 Texas A&M in the semifinals of the 2K Classic on Nov. 17.
For MSU (1-1), Wednesday night marked a third-straight season with a non-conference loss before Thanksgiving that left coach Rick Stansbury searching for answers.
“When you’re in a game like that, when you’re not playing very well, you just got to find someone to just step up and start making some plays to take that game over. Never happened,” Stansbury said. “We just weren’t very crisp, and I don’t have the answers for it. If I had the answers for it, I wouldn’t be here.”
MSU’s inside-out duo of junior forward Arnett Moultrie and senior point guard Dee Bost went 4 of 22 from the field with seven turnovers. The Bulldogs also were dominated in nearly every statistical category.
“I never felt from the get-go tonight we were ever in control of the game,” Stansbury said. “I thought we were a step slow and they were quicker to every loose ball.”
Akron, the 2011 Mid-American Conference tournament champion, worked into the lane consistently in the first half and shot 51.5 percent from the field. Junior forward Quincy Diggs scored a game-high 19 points to lead the Zips. Diggs, a transfer from the University of New Orleans, took advantage of Bost’s foul trouble in the first half that forced MSU to go to a smaller lineup. He was able to shoot over smaller defenders Bryant Bryant or Jalen Steele on the wing.
“Coach told me at the beginning to go to rack and see what happens,” Diggs said. “He told us we were going to take punches and all we had to do was keep coming.”
Bost, a senior point guard, went to the bench with his second foul with 15 minutes, 33 seconds left in the first half. Freshman point guard DeVille Smith made his college basketball debut, but Stansbury quickly realized he needed Bost, a Wooden Award Watch List candidate, on the floor. He made the move after Akron used a 9-2 run to take its first lead. Bost’s presence didn’t solve the problem as MSU went the final 8 minutes, 12 seconds of the first half without a field goal.
“This game was definitely a wakeup call for us,” Moultrie said. “We need to hustle and get stronger.”
For the second straight game, MSU junior forward Renardo Sidney sat on the bench and watched the final four minutes with the result still in doubt. The former McDonald’s All-American had 12 points and five rebounds in 25 minutes, but he was one of many players bothered by the defensive length of center Zeke Marshall (10 points, six rebounds, five blocked shots). Marshall fouled out with 3:17 left in the game. When he didn’t reject a shot, the 7-footer forced MSU to miss 12 shots near the baskets.
“It bothered me a lot and I was worried about finishing over him, and that’s probably why I missed so many easy buckets,” Moultrie said.
MSU will try to regroup for a game against South Alabama at 1 p.m. Saturday before facing four Bowl Championship Series opponents before New Year’s Day.