March 13, 2010
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury is looking for some bandwagon fans to support the Bulldogs in their second consecutive SEC tournament championship game.
The Bulldogs will need all the help they can get when they face a No. 2 Kentucky team looking for its first tournament crown since 2004 on Sunday in an arena that's become the Wildcats' home away from home. Mississippi State didn't need the extra boost in the 62-52 win over Vanderbilt (No. 23 ESPN/USA Today, No. 20 AP) on Saturday that advanced it to the Southeastern Conference title game.
"Big Blue, as you well know, they're going to travel. No question the place will be packed with them," Stansbury said. "I would hope all those [other] fans that are still left here -- we need all those fans for us. Vanderbilt, we need all those fans, Tennessee fans."
Barry Stewart scored 14 points and Dee Bost, Phil Turner and Jarvis Varnado each added 11 for the Bulldogs, who won four straight games in the 2009 tournament for their first title in seven years. They received a first-round bye this time after sharing the SEC West Division crown with Mississippi, a team they beat twice this season.
Mississippi State entered the tournament low on quality wins, but victories over Florida and Vanderbilt could be enough to seal a spot in the NCAA tournament.
"I don't know what it is about this team, but when our backs are against the wall, we're at our best. I guess that's a good thing," Stewart said.
Jermaine Beal scored 11 for Vanderbilt (24-8), which was hoping to reach the SEC tournament championship game for only the second time. The Commodores made the final and won in 1951 and have lost two other times in the semifinals since the league split into divisions in 1992.
With a 33-29 lead just after halftime, Mississippi State went on an 11-0 run. Kodi Augustus blocked a shot by Vanderbilt's Jeffery Taylor, and Bost made a fast-break layup to give the Bulldogs a 44-29 lead with 17:13 left.
Stansbury said his team learned plenty of lessons from Mississippi State's 75-72 loss Feb. 3 to Vanderbilt, namely to limit A.J. Ogilvy in the post and Beal and John Jenkins on the perimeter.
Ogilvy had only two free throws, and Jenkins scored seven points after having a career-high 25 in the Commodores' quarterfinal win over Georgia. Beal was four points below his average.
Vanderbilt started to show signs of life when a three-point play by Taylor and a 3 by Brad Tinsley launched a 10-0 run. After a pair of free throws by Varnado, Tinsley sank another 3 to cut Mississippi State's lead to 51-48 with 5:37 left.
The Bulldogs clamped down on defense and answered with a 9-1 run to seal the win.
"I thought we were all the way back in the game, but at the end of the game Mississippi State made some shots, and we came down and missed some shots and some free throws," Beal said.
The Commodores have eked out wins in close games by taking control of the foul line. Entering the game, they had hit an SEC-leading 72.9 percent of their free-throw attempts and reached the line an average 26 times per game. Against Mississippi State, they went 10 of 17.
Mississippi State, which shot 57.1 percent in the quarterfinals against Florida, shot only 37.5 percent before halftime. Festus Ezeli hit a layup off a missed 3-pointer by Andre Walker to cut the Bulldogs' lead to 25-22 with 6:25 left in the half, but the Commodores entered a 4 1/2 minute drought, committing three fouls and four turnovers in the stretch.
"I thought our defense was good enough to win the game, but offensively we were never able to find a rhythm," Commodores coach Kevin Stallings said. "We couldn't get any baskets, couldn't get to the foul line."
Even though the tournament is being played in Vanderbilt's hometown, the Commodores' numbers were nearly matched in the stands by Mississippi State fans and far exceeded by the presence of Kentucky fans, who hung around to watch after their Wildcats routed Tennessee (No. 13 ESPN/USA Today, No. 15 AP) 74-45.
"We're going to play like they're cheering for us out there," Stansbury said of the Kentucky fans. "That's the only way you can look at it. We understand what we're up against."