TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — There’s something eerie about seeing a season hit rock bottom in the center of an arena more befitting of an airplane hangar. For Mississippi State, the scattered applause from an apathetic Alabama fan base that hasn’t seen its squad reach the NCAA tournament since 1999 was a harrowing reminder of how far the program has fallen in a matter of four months.
There’s plenty of blame to go around for Sunday’s 71-63 loss to the Crimson Tide: a pandemic, an unexpected 10-day layoff, a new coaching staff. But whatever the root of MSU’s struggles are this season, the second loss to Alabama this year marked a new low in a campaign that has seemingly set new ones by the week.
“We’re accustomed to winning,” MSU head coach Nikki McCray-Penson said postgame. “When you’re not winning, sometimes (effort) is questioned. I don’t question that.”
Having played just two Southeastern Conference games over the past 34 days due to varying cancellations and postponements, the Bulldogs looked the part of a team in free fall. MSU was disjointed, discombobulated and downright dreadful in guarding Alabama’s high-octane offense as the Crimson Tide torched the Bulldogs for a 6-of-13 mark from 3-point range and a 41.7 percent shooting mark from the floor in Sunday’s first half.
Offensively, the same problems that have plagued MSU throughout the year persisted. Junior forward Jessika Carter, who earned second team all-SEC honors a season ago, settled for her step-back jumper possession after possession. She hit a few. She missed more.
Sophomore sensation Rickea Jackson looked like a shell of her former self for the umpteenth time this winter in the early stages of Sunday’s loss. Jackson, who felt poised to step into the national player of the year conversation after a standout freshman campaign, was again stifled throughout the first half and recorded more turnovers (3) than she did field goals (2).
“The shots that they’re getting, they just have to make,” McCray-Penson said of Carter and Jackson, “especially the ones at the rim.”
Out of the half, MSU tried to play with more pace. Alabama did it better.
Following its woeful shooting display in the first two quarters, MSU finished 24-of-63 from the field as Alabama and first-team all-SEC candidate Jasmine Walker — who recorded a game-high 20 points — shot a combined 47.6 percent on 63 field goal attempts, including a 9-of-22 mark from 3-point range.
Dejected and downtrodden, heads hung low along the MSU sideline during the closing minutes of Sunday’s game. Looking on from the sideline as Jackson fouled Alabama forward Ariyah Copeland on a made fourth-quarter layup, McCray-Penson placed her hands on her head and shook it in disbelief.
“It’s February,” McCray-Penson said. “I thought we would be playing our best basketball during this time. But we haven’t played a whole lot. There’s some things that we’re getting better at. But it is the rhythm. We’re a team where we need games, we need to get in rhythm.”
ESPN bracketologist Charlie Creme had MSU slated as a No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament in his Feb. 16 rankings. Alabama will surely be a part of that 64-team field. So too should another six SEC teams. But whether the Bulldogs receive an invitation to that party is becoming increasingly uncertain.
MSU currently sits just a game above .500 overall and is on its lengthiest losing streak since the 2012-13 season — Vic Schaefer’s first year in Starkville. The Bulldogs’ win over No. 22 Georgia continues to get better with age. But that victory aside, MSU has beaten just one team inside the top 50 of the most recent NET rankings.
McCray-Penson’s past stops offer ample evidence she’s capable of lifting a program. She was a crucial part of South Carolina’s rise to dominance under Dawn Staley over the past decade, and she engineered a 13-win improvement between her first and second years as the head coach at Old Dominion before a 24-win final campaign.
But with three games remaining in an already forgetful debut season in Starkville, McCray-Penson and MSU are in the midst of a schneid that felt like it finally cratered Sunday 50 miles over the Alabama state line and could end with the Bulldogs missing the tournament for the first time in eight years.