A brilliantly played final three minutes, an area the Tigers struggled with early in the season, was the difference as the Tigers won their second SEC men's basketball game of the season.
Kenny Gabriel, who was chewed out earlier in the game by Coach Tony Barbee, led the comeback on defense and offense. He hit a three-pointer from the corner with 1:18 left to put the Tigers on top 59-58 and the send the sellout crowd into a frenzy.
Auburn's defense, which had led the way in the comeback, then forced an over-and-back violation at midcourt to give the Tigers the ball with 52 seconds to play.
Sophomore point guard Josh Wallace then hit a running, left-handed layup and was fouled with 26 seconds left. He made the free throw to stretch the lead to 62-58.
Dee Bost cut the lead to two with a layup seven seconds later for the Bulldogs. Gabriel, who was fouled in the backcourt, missed his first free throw with 14.7 seconds left and made the second to stretch the lead to 63-60.
With Auburn's defense defending the three Bost hit another layup with 6.5 seconds left to narrow the lead to one-point, but Auburn was able to get the ball in-bounds against pressure. Earnest Ross dribbled past halfcourt and was fouled with 3.5 seconds left.
Ross then hit both free throws and Bost's halfcourt heave was way off target as the Tigers completed one of the largest comebacks in school history, the biggest since coming back from 19 points down vs. LSU in January 1999 to go to 16-0 that SEC Championship season.
The biggest ever Auburn comeback on record was from a 22-point halftime deficit vs. No. 13 Louisville on Nov. 25th, 1995 in the Puerto Rico Classic.
Auburn had struggled with end of game situations early in the year, but couldn't have done much better on Saturday night as the Tigers improved to 9-15 overall and 2-8 in the SEC while Mississippi State fell to 13-11 overall and 5-5 in the conference.
"The last three minutes I thought was solid," said Barbee, who credited his team's execution on offense and defense with making the comeback possible. "They also missed some shots they hadn't missed early in the game," he noted.
The Auburn coach said he liked his team's mental toughness in the second half when Auburn's situation looked bleak. "Down 16, 17 or 18 the guys didn't pack it in," said Barbee, who pointed out that mental and physical toughness on defense made the difference.
Barbee noted that he had been critical of junior forward Gabriel early in the game. Gabriel said he deserved it because although he was playing well offensively he was a step behind defensively before moving into high gear in the second half.
By the end of the game Gabriel had put together an impressive line in scoring 18 points. He was 7-12 from the field, 2-2 on threes, 2-3 at the foul line, had five rebounds and two steals in 26 minutes.
"I was disappointed in Kenny's effort the majority of the game, but that was the response I wanted," Barbee said of the junior's finish. "He came on the floor and responded with some big defensive plays."
Earnest Ross led the Tigers in scoring with 21 points and was the top rebounder with seven. He played just under 40 minutes in the game.
Bost led all scorers with 22 points, but no other MSU player reached double figures although Renardo Sidney just missed a double-double with his 13 rebounds and nine points before fouling out.
Josh Wallace plays defense vs. Dee Bost (right) on Saturday night.
Auburn jumped to an early 7-2 lead, but couldn't sustain its offensive momentum. It didn't take the Bulldogs long to catch the Tigers and after that happened the visitors got hot from three-point range and quickly built their lead into double digits.
By halftime Mississippi State had nailed 8-15 three pointers on the way to building a 36-24 lead. Bost was the hottest Bulldog hitting 4-5 treys in the first 20 minutes.
Overall, the Bulldogs hit 47.8 percent of their first half shots while Auburn made just 34.4 percent as Mississippi State took control of the contest.
Rob Chubb scores inside for the Tigers.
The game marked the return from suspension for sophomore Rob Chubb, who made his first appearance late in the half. After that the center played extensively and finished the game with six points, two rebounds and a steal in 16 minutes. He contributed a sky hook during Auburn's late comeback.
Barbee said that the sophomore is welcome back to the team after apologizing for his alcohol-related arrest the night after scoring a career-high 18 points vs. South Carolina.
The coach said that Chubb embarrassed his team and himself, but also noted he is a college student and deserves another chance. "I am disappointed in the decision he made, but at the same time he is a college kid. Just because he made a mistake doesn't mean you throw him under the bus."
The Tigers celebrate their second SEC victory.
Auburn finished the game shooting 44.1 percent from the field after making 55.1 percent of its shots in the second half. Auburn was 6-12 on threes and 7-12 at the foul line.
Mississippi State hit 40 percent in the second half and 43.8 percent from the game. The Bulldogs were 9-24 on threes and 11-15 at the foul line.
Auburn had 12 turnovers, four less than MSU. Auburn hung on the boards with the taller and stronger Bulldogs, losing the rebounding battle by a manageable 34-30.
Mississippi State head coach Rick Stansbury said, "It is a disappointing loss not just because it is a loss, but because we played so well for about 35 minutes and those last five minutes we just melted down.
"We had absolutely way too many turnovers, too any unforced turnovers," the coach said. "I think it started with that technical foul because that gave them two points and gave them the ball back. From that point on there were just way too many turnovers...They just made all the plays down the stretch.
"They made three-point plays, two on the foul with the foul and then one in the corner in the last three and half minutes," Stansbury added.
The Tigers return to action with a 7 p.m. game on Wednesday at Ole Miss.