The bench did not show up for the Houston Cougars Saturday afternoon. Their three-point shooting ability took the afternoon off. Kelvin Lewis and Adam Brown struggled from the field the entire day. And Aubrey Coleman had a flash back to the days of Phi Slama Jama where making a free throw was cause for being ejected from the fraternity. Yet with one minute left, the Cougars and Mississippi State Bulldogs were tied at 64 and the game was where head coach Tom Penders wanted it to be.
Unfortunately, for Penders and the team, Mississippi State got the win as Coleman continued to miss shots and free throws while Mississippi State made shots and hit free throws.
"It was a heck of a defensive battle," Penders said afterwards. "I would have never thought that coming into the game. Our guys left everything they had out on the floor."
A heck of a defensive battle it was, and more than anything, the Cougars' play on defense was the most shocking thing about the game. But despite the loss, the team's defensive presence, if it continues through the season, gives promise for Cougars prospects.
"In many ways [I feel] better [about the team] because the defense stepped up today," Penders said. "The defense was more like a Cougar defense in my era. A lot of deflections. We turned them over 19 times. We only six, etc. Those are things that I think you can have more control as a team night in, night out. The shooting part is not always there. It really isn't. I feel like our defense knows what they have to do. And hopefully we can continue to build on that."
Besides forcing the turnovers, the defense held Mississippi State to only 38.6 percent shooting from the field. It was this that allowed the Cougars to stay in the game -- to even compete -- despite the team only shooting 31 percent from the floor.
Penders set his defense to play to, and stop, the strengths of the Mississippi State game, which was taking away the inside game. Their big guys were only 6-for-18 from the field which resulted in the Bulldogs being forced to take more threes.
"We were a little more aggressive," he said. "We set up the defense to force them to stay outside and not reverse the ball. And our kids executed that very well. We've tried that in some other games and didn't do such a good job. Some teams rely on ball reversals. These guys do that through high-ball screens and using their center to reverse the ball. We did a good job of stopping that."
What the Cougars did not get is much of an offensive contribution from anyone but Aubrey Coleman, who finished the game with 28 points. Still, he struggled as he took it upon himself to do what his teammates could not, make shots.
Coleman was only 10-of-31 from the floor, but that was a huge improvement over Kelvin Lewis who was just 7-of-17, Adam Brown who was 1-of-11, and Kirk Van Slyke who was 1-of-5. Worse than the number of shots missed was the large number of open shots missed. And for the most part, the bench was MIA on the offensive end.
Kahmell Broughton was the bright spot off the bench, again, for the Cougars. He only took one shot (which he made), and he ended up fouling out, but his inside presence, and his willingness to bang the Bulldog big guys, helped to throw Mississippi State out of its intended game.
"He gives you everything he has," Penders said of Broughton. "He's an effort guy. He gave us more than anybody else did in that area, at the five position. He's been doing that in practice. That's good to see. Now maybe some of the other guys will catch on and see there's minutes to be had with effort. I'm very pleased for him because he's one of our hardest working guys on a daily basis. Some of the younger guys, and some of the new people, I think can look at him and say 'Hey, that's the way we need to play.'"
The Cougars (5-3) get another chance to get it right tonight as they host The Citadel (7-6) at 7:00. The Citadel is one of those non-major teams that can sneak upon a team that takes it for granted. And after Saturday's disappointing loss, the Cougars will have to guard against taking The Citadel for granted.
"You learn a lot more about yourself when you lose and you see how you're able to bounce back," Penders said. Like learning how to bounce back against a lesser team after a tough, disappointing loss.