STARKVILLE — After saying it was punched in the mouth last weekend at the University of Arkansas, the Mississippi State University men’s basketball team delivered the final blow Thursday night.
In a physically demanding contest where open looks and clear cuts through the paint were at a premium, No. 20 MSU hung on for a 62-58 victory in its Southeastern Conference home opener against the University of Tennessee.
“Our defense didn’t make the trip across the Mississippi River before the Arkansas game, (but) I didn’t panic about that coming into this game,” MSU coach Rick Stansbury said. “I know the effort was better.”
On another frustrating night, MSU senior point guard Dee Bost went from a potential disappointment to a game-saver with a steal and a one-handed dunk for the last basket. With seconds left in the game, Tennessee point guard Trae Golden slipped on the Humphrey Coliseum floor, allowing Bost to take the basketball and secure MSU’s first SEC victory of the season.
That final bucket could get the Wooden Award nominee out of the funk he has been in on both ends of the floor.
“I can carry it over to the next game and stay positive,” Bost said.
Before that one-handed jam, the announced crowd of 7,588 wondered if Bost’s sixth and final turnover would prove too costly.
With MSU leading by two points, Bost tried to create something with the shot clock winding down, but guard Skylar McPhee intercepted his crosscourt pass to give the Volunteers (8-8, 1-1 SEC) one last chance to tie or take the lead.
Bost took that opportunity away seconds later.
“I was trying to put as much pressure as I could in those final seconds,” Bost said. “I knew (Golden) was going to take the shot.”
The 6-foot-3 senior played only three minutes in the first half after the physical play rattled him and he was called for a foul 50 feet from the basket after a Tennessee double team stripped him of the basketball. Bost had a team-high 13 points, five assists, and four steals to counter another six-turnover effort that saw him go 3-for-11 from the field.
“You can never fault his effort,” Stansbury said. “I think late in the game it was his effort that made a huge play for us.”
Bost had eight points and four assists in the second half. He also had a critical three-point conversion with a little more than three minutes to go to put MSU (14-3, 1-1) up 59-53.
Tennessee chipped away at its deficit thanks to the inside-out combination of forward Kenny Hall and Golden. Hall, who has been moved to the bench since the start of SEC play, had 12 inside points in 28 minutes, which allowed for open looks when the basketball was rotated to 6-foot-1 guard. Golden, a point guard, nailed 4-for-6 from beyond the 3-point arc for a game-high 20 points.
“We did a good job of shooting the three-point shot but not just settling for jumpers” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “We had to go inside-out offensive to beat them.”
Tennessee’s front-court physicality held MSU junior forward Arnett Moultrie to four rebounds, a season-low total by four, and just one on the offensive end. Moultrie’s inability to get to the offensive glass limited the Bulldogs to eight second-chance points.
“Our big guys went toe to toe with their really talented frontcourt” Martin said. “It was somewhat of the next phase we have talked about as a program.”
Moultrie and junior center Renardo Sidney each had 13 points. Sidney, who was back in the starting lineup after being the first substitute off the bench at Arkansas, had seven rebounds and two steals.
“We were able to match them inside,” Moultrie said. “We knew Tennessee was a physical team, so we expected them to play us tough.”
The play of reserves DeVille Smith, Brian Bryant, and Wendell Lewis helped MSU avoid a second straight conference loss, and third in four games since the Christmas break.
Smith, a freshman from Jackson, added five assists in the first half with Bost on the bench in foul trouble. Bryant had six points and two rebounds in 15 minutes, while Wendell Lewis’ tied a career-high with five blocks.
MSU will play host to the University of Alabama (13-3, 2-0) at 3 p.m. Saturday. It will look to get some revenge after losing to the Crimson Tide 75-57 last season in the SEC opener.
“They will get up into you in the half-court defense and they will mix up with their zone defense,” Stansbury said. “It’s another quick turnaround.”