GREENVILLE, S.C. — First-year Mississippi State head coach Sam Purcell still firmly believes his team is NCAA tournament worthy.
But that doesn’t make Thursday feel any better.
No. 5 seed Mississippi State made just one field goal in the second quarter Thursday afternoon against 13th-seeded Texas A&M, flipping what was a six-point Bulldogs lead into a seven-point halftime deficit.
After scoring 10 points in the first quarter alone, senior forward Jessika Carter found herself in foul trouble and played a combined five minutes in the second and third quarters. The Bulldogs trailed by as many as nine points in the fourth quarter but cut the deficit to three on a layup from guard/forward Debreasha Powe.
But, as was the case all afternoon, the Aggies responded with a dagger, this one a 3-pointer from McKinzie Green, as Texas A&M upset Mississippi State 79-72 in the second round of the SEC tournament at Bon Secours Wellness Arena.
“Ultimately at the end there, we fought like no other, but it just wasn’t enough,” Purcell said. “We will take this. I still believe we are an NCAA tournament team.”
The Bulldogs didn’t score their first points of the second quarter until nearly eight minutes in and were outscored 18-5 in the period. Mississippi State (22-10, 9-7 Southeastern Conference) was just 1 of 11 from the field in the quarter and turned the ball over six times.
Carter scored 10 of Mississippi State’s 25 first-quarter points, and the Bulldogs led by as many as 10 in the first. But the Aggies clawed back and took their first lead early in the second, scoring the first 16 points of the quarter Purcell thinks defined the game.
“That second quarter was the game. We did some things that were uncharacteristic for us. We took too many shots,” Purcell said. “ We quit talking on ball screens, and ultimately they punched us in the face.
Mississippi State came out hot in the third, scoring the first five points and quickly cutting the deficit to two. Again the Aggies found their stride, using a 7-0 run to push the lead back up.
But every time the Bulldogs got the score within a basket or so — a 3-pointer from senior guard Kourtney Weber made it a four-point game late in the third — the Aggies responded with a big shot of their own.
A five-point Bulldogs deficit became a nine-point deficit as the third ended on back-to-back baskets from Tineya Hylton, the last coming on a steal and fastbreak.
Carter was a difference-maker in the fourth, scoring eight points while changing countless Aggies shots. Texas A&M entered the game averaging 4.7 made 3-pointers per game and made 11 against the Bulldogs. Three of those came in the fourth quarter, including two in the final 3:10.
The Bulldogs shot 39 percent from the field in the game.
“Honestly, I think we caved in and kind of got in our heads,” senior guard Ahlana Smith said. “I feel like credit to them, they’re a great team, but I think tonight we beat ourselves mentally.”
The Bulldogs now await their postseason fate, though Purcell and his players seem confident they’ll be on the right side of things when the brackets are released March 12.
Until then — and going forward, for that matter — Purcell firmly believes there are lessons to be learned from this tournament experience.
“We learned from sitting in the hotel and watching film what it takes to prepare, and then you have to come out and put four quarters together,” Purcell said. “ … LSU, we go down to LSU in front of 15,000 fans. We’re up 15-14. We come out tonight, we’re up 25-19. We have to look and find a way from the last two games of, how do you maintain and ride the wave, but most importantly don’t have too big of a quarter where you get punched in the mouth and it’s just too hard to come back.
“We will stick together. We will be hungry, but, again, talk is cheap. We have to get to work, and we’ll see how bad we want it next week.”
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