STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP)—Since going to a smaller starting lineup, Mississippi State has been big trouble for opponents.
Lawrence Roberts scored 20 points and Timmy Bowers had 18 to lead No. 11 Mississippi State to an 82-60 victory over Tennessee on Wednesday night, the Bulldogs’ fourth straight double-digit victory.
After losing to Kentucky on a flukey buzzer-beater, Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury tinkered with his starting lineup, sitting lumbering 7-footer Marcus Campbell and inserting versatile 6-foot-5 forward Shane Power.
Smaller has been better for the Bulldogs, who have won their last four by an average of 14 points.
“It makes us a lot quicker and it spreads the defense out,” Roberts said of the new look that has him playing as a center. “We have three great shooters out there, so you know the defense can’t really can’t help off of people.”
Power had 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting and Winsome Frazier scored 12 on four 3-pointers to prove Roberts’ point.
The defending SEC West champion Bulldogs (17-1, 6-1 Southeastern Conference) are threatening to run away with the division title this season. Mississippi State has a 2 1/2 -game lead over Alabama and LSU.
Tennessee coach Buzz Peterson has faced No. 22 Florida, No. 5 Kentucky and No. 4 Louisville in the last 18 days.
“I don’t know if (the Bulldogs) are as deep as some of those other teams,” he said. “But one through seven, they’re just as good. Mississippi State is 1 second away from being undefeated.”
Tennessee (10-6, 2-4), meanwhile, is heading the other way. The Vols have lost four straight and five of six against a brutal schedule.
“This is a very tough stretch for us,” said Peterson, who starts two sophomores, a freshman and no seniors. “We’ve just go to stay positive.”
Scooter McFadgon, the SEC’s leading scorer, had 20 points to lead the Vols, who committed 21 turnovers and never looked comfortable against Mississippi State’s active defense.
The Bulldogs had 10 steals and scored 35 points off Tennessee’s giveaways. They are off to their best SEC start since 1993-94.
Mississippi State outscored the Vols 22-10 in the first 10 minutes of the second half, forcing six turnovers and opening up a 61-39 lead.
“I think our team really came out and made a statement,” Stansbury said. “Our team came out in the second half and left no question who was going to win that basketball game.”
Roberts made the play of the game during the surge. The 6-9 junior came up with a with a steal under the basket and went end-to-end for a soft layup.
The Bulldogs may have even found themselves a new 7-footer to provide spot duty.
Wesley Morgan, a 7-2 sophomore, had seven points and seven rebounds in his first SEC game. He padded his stats at the end, but he provided a few good minutes in the first half when it was still a competitive game.
Morgan’s unexpected contributions immediately turned him into a fan favorite. All he had to do was touch the ball to produce a loud roar in the second half.
“Oh yeah, it was nice,” the big man said with a sheepish smile.
Bowers had 14 points in the first half, carrying the Bulldogs offensively while Roberts was taking a while to find his grove.
The Bulldogs played well in spurts in the first 20 minutes, keeping the Vols off balance by mixing a trapping zone with their man-to-man defense.
But every time they managed to get a double-digit lead, Tennessee would cut into it.
After missing some good looks early, Roberts finally came alive late in the half. He scored seven straight points in the final two minutes, the last two on an emphatic two-handed slam after a steal in the backcourt to make it 37-26.
McFadgon swished a 3 from the corner at the buzzer to make it 39-29 at the half, but that was the last good moment of the game for the Volunteers.