NEW ORLEANS -- Four weeks ago it was a question of where, not if, Mississippi State would be dancing.
The Bulldogs were 19-5 heading into the final month of the season. They were ranked No. 18 in the country and primed for solid seeding in both the SEC and NCAA tournaments.
Those days seemed like a distant dream Thursday night in the Mississippi State locker room. A month removed from such lofty aspirations, the Bulldogs crashed out of the SEC tournament 71-61 at the hands of lowly Georgia, the No. 11 seed, to complete a 2-6 skid.
"It hurts," said State forward Renardo Sidney. "I know we're one of the better teams down here in the SEC tournament, and we just didn't go out there and play hard. We didn't have no heart."
Huddled around their postgame meals, the Bulldogs looked like they'd just woken up from a bad dream -- a nightmare in which they lost five consecutive games during the month of February.
The only problem is, that's the sobering reality.
Big man Arnett Moultrie couldn't bring himself to even speak about it. Faced with a wall of cameras and recorders, Moultrie steadfastly repeated "no comment" before turning to his dinner.
It's an understandable reaction after the forward, who averaged 16.1 points for the Bulldogs this season, was limited to a mere seven in 39 minutes by a relentless Georgia zone defense.
"Give Georgia credit. They did a good job of keeping our bigs from scoring inside that zone," said Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury.
Sidney, who was limited to four points and managed just 19 minutes because of foul trouble, was willing to talk, but found himself at a loss for words.
"It was hard to get the ball down there," he said. "That zone. I can't even explain it."
The only Mississippi State starter who could find his game was guard Jalen Steele. With State trailing 59-51 and five minutes to play, Steele reeled off the next nine Bulldogs points to pull them within as close as three points, 60-57. The run seemed to inspire the MSU bench, and it brought the State faithful to their feet.
"I thought it was going to be just like Vanderbilt, where we came out and came back," Sidney said. "We just couldn't get it over the line. We tried to fight back, but they kept coming."
Two minutes later, two Mississippi State turnovers had allowed Georgia to extend the lead to seven, and the rally was dead.
"We had the thought that we lost to [Georgia] on our mind, but we knew it was a new game," said guard Dee Bost. "We lost the momentum, and they made plays when they were supposed to."
Steele said the Bulldogs lacked heart, and it showed. Led by guards Gerald Robinson and Dustin Ware, Georgia rattled off a 15-2 run starting about five minutes into the second half. Although they only trailed by nine, Steele said it took the Bulldogs too long to respond.
"We came out kind of sluggish. We could have came out with a little more energy, but it didn't fall our way," he said.
It was a similar feeling and a fitting ending. The Bulldogs were within a basket inside the last 10 minutes of five of their six recent losses, but they let them all slip away. Having officially hit rock bottom, all they can do is hope their NCAA hope hasn't slipped away as well.
"We were on the bubble going into this game, and we really needed this game," Sidney said. "Just the thought of your season in somebody else's hands, it's kind of tough. Hopefully we get in."