It was a new night with a new issue for Mississippi State. After the Bulldogs lost their season opener to Clemson on Wednesday in large part due to offensive struggles – particularly significant woes at the free-throw line – it was Liberty's long-range shooting that sank State on Thursday and dropped the maroon and white to 0-2 for the young season.
Liberty drained 19 three-pointers on the way to defeating MSU 84-73 at the Space Coast Challenge in Melbourne, Florida. Though the Bulldogs corrected many of the issues that plagued them in their opener, State couldn't overcome the red-hot Flames.
"I thought they did a great job penetrating and kicking it out," MSU head coach Ben Howland said of Liberty's success from deep. "They shot the hell out of it (Thursday night). Give them credit."
Liberty shot 48.7 percent (19-of-39) from beyond the arc. The Flames were led by a 23-point effort by Darius McGhee. McGhee was nearly unstoppable from three, making seven of his 11 shots from deep. Though McGhee led the charge, his teammates followed suit. Elijah Cuffee was 5-for-6 from three-point land. Micaiah Abii was 3-for-6. Six different Liberty players hit at least one three.
Meanwhile the Bulldogs couldn't keep up. Despite getting double figures in scoring from four different guys, including 20 points apiece for D.J. Stewart and Tolu Smith, MSU couldn't match Liberty's long-range punch. The good news for State is Thursday did appear to be a stride forward offensively.
MSU shot only 30 percent as a team in Wednesday's loss to Clemson. The Bulldogs upped that to 57.4 percent from the field on Thursday, State was also much better from the free-throw line. After missing 19 shots from the charity stripe against Clemson (8-of-27), MSU bounced back by making 15 of their 19 free throws (78.9 percent) against Liberty.
"We spent 20 minutes (Thursday) in our shoot-around just working on our foul shooting and really getting focused on it," Howland said. "I thought Abdul (Ado) and Tolu (Smith) in particular were very good there. They were 10-for-13 there (combined) – a big improvement from (Wednesday). We did some good things. I thought offensively (Thursday), we were much better than we were against Clemson. (Wednesday) we had a much better defensive effort. I told the team this – we've got to put the two games together and play a solid game of defense with a really solid offensive attack."
It didn't help MSU's cause that the team continues to be without the services of sophomore guard Iverson Molinar. Molinar missed his second-straight game due to an undisclosed issue. Howland noted postgame that Molinar is expected to miss one more game before returning on December 4 against North Texas.
Molinar's return should certainly help State. It seems unlikely though that Molinar alone will immediately cure MSU's early growing pains this season as the young Bulldogs try to get things ironed out.
"Our youth is definitely an aspect where we have to grow up here in a hurry," Howland said. "We're starting two freshmen right now (with Deivon Smith and Cameron Matthews). Tolu (Smith) is playing for the first time after sitting out a year (due to NCAA transfer rules). Three of our starters are guys that are playing early in their careers essentially."
State's young guys' next chance to grow comes on Monday night as MSU has its home opener. The Bulldogs host Texas State at Humphrey Coliseum at 7 p.m. central.
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