Guards Lewis Monroe, Quinnel Brown and Nathan Watson all scored in double-figures, but it wasn't enough to overcome the Bulldogs as Timmy Bowers scored 17 points in the victory. Auburn Coach Cliff Ellis said the game was a loss to swallow after playing so well on both ends of the court.
"I think Mississippi State showed why they are very good," Ellis said. "That is a very good basketball team. Our team really fought and I thought it was the best perimeter game we've played all year. It really was a great perimeter game."
The difference in Saturday's game was on the glass as the Bulldogs dominated the backboards behind Lawrence Roberts' 11 rebounds. Mississippi State finished with 41 rebounds while the Tigers had just 25. The Bulldogs had 17 offensive rebounds, the same number of rebounds Auburn had on the defensive end. The extra shots and possessions were the difference on a day when Auburn shot better from the field and free throw line and also had fewer turnovers.
"Their presence inside was dominant, in the paint, scoring, defensively and on the boards," Ellis said. "They had 17 offensive rebounds and that's not all big guys. I thought the game in the paint and the boards, they are very good."
After playing the Bulldogs toe-to-toe in the first half and down just one, Auburn came out swinging in the second stanza spurred on by the loudest crowd of the year. Quickly Mississippi State opened the lead up to five behind to quick baskets by Bowers. A quick timeout by Ellis turned the momentum as back-to-back baskets by Brown and Watson cut the lead back to one.
The two teams would trade baskets for much of the second half with the Mississippi State lead never getting more than eight points. That happenened when Shane Powers drained a three-pointer from the top of the key with 9:37 left in the game. From that point forward the Tigers began to make a move.
Brown was once again the catalyst for the Tigers, hitting a jumper from the left wing to cut the lead back to six. Monroe then made the play of the day for the Tigers. Taking a pass on the left wing, he drained a long three-pointer while getting fouled by Branden Vincent. Completing the rare four-point play, Monroe ignited the crowd of just over 9,251 and got the fans on their feet the rest of the way.
Back in the game Auburn would continue to chip away at the Bulldogs and when Monroe stole the ball near midcourt on a trip that eventually led to a Brandon Robinson tip-in, the Tigers had come almost all the way back to cut the lead to just one with 2:02 remaining. Things looked even better moments later when Brown got into the lane on a fast break and appeared to be seconds away from giving Auburn its first lead of the second half, but it wasn't to be as his shot was short and rebounded by Roberts for the Bulldogs.
Lewis Monroe drives to the basket against the Bulldogs Saturday.
Two free throws by Roberts pushed the lead back to three with 1:11 left in the game and Auburn came back down the court looking to cut the lead or tie the game. Brown appeared to have a chance to do just that when he drove the lane and got fouled while shooting, but an officiating crew that was horrible all day didn't see the harm and the Bulldogs took over possession. Following a Bulldog timeout Watson forced a turnover in the backcourt off Bowers' hand to give the ball back to Auburn with a chance to tie the game with 35 seconds left.
"I knew Bowers was going to go into the backcourt and try to run some more time off the clock," Watson said. "I tried to deny it and just got a good deflection."
Knowing the Tigers were looking for the three, the Bulldogs swarmed the perimeter, allowing Watson to retrieve his own miss from outside and stick it back with 22 seconds on the clock. A quick foul by Auburn on Power was just a formality as he drained both to push the lead back to three and give the Tigers one final shot. Watson got open at the top of the key for just a moment, but his high-arcing three was just short. Sensing his team was in need Brown grabbed the rebound and got it back to Watson for one final chance.
Only that chance never came. Going up with the ball Watson was pulled down by two Bulldog defenders before he could get the shot off. Instead of awarding Watson three free throws, the officials ruled that the foul was on the floor. Watson missed the first free throw and a Bulldog rebound effectively sealed the victory for Mississippi State.
"We were trying to run a play to Quinnel or to Lewis, but both of those guys were denied on the in-bounds," Watson said. "Marco (Killingsworth) got the ball to me, but I was fouled. Two guys fouled me right as I was going up so I don't think it looked like I was shooting. I was going up for a shot, but they kind of held me down on the foul so I couldn't get into my shot."
The loss drops Auburn to 2-5 in SEC play and 11-7 overall. Mississippi State improves to 18-1 overall and 7-1 in SEC play. The Bulldogs have a full two game lead over anyone else in the Western Division.
Still recovering from a preseason injury to his foot, Monroe came to play on Saturday and looked to be back in full swing. He scored 17 points on 6-7 shooting. Getting his sixth start of the season, Brown was Auburn's leading scorer at the two guard spot with 20 points while Watson added 12 points and four rebounds.
As good as the perimeter play was the inside game was almost non-existent for Auburn. Killingsworth had eight points and three rebounds in 22 minutes. Robinson finished just 1-6 from the floor and had four points and three rebounds. Center Kyle Davis had five points, seven rebounds and six blocked shots, but also had four turnovers. Inconsistent inside play was a major reason why the Tigers dropped their second home SEC game this season.
In the first half the play of Monroe was the highlight for the Tigers. Showing a sign of his old form, he had 13 points, including two three-pointers. Guiding the team with poise and confidence, Monroe says that he felt like he would have a good day after having a week off to rest and rehab his leg.
"My shots are finally falling and I am starting to get my confidence back," Monroe said. "Things are coming together for me. I think the week off really helped our legs a lot. We were able to focus on ourselves and what we need to do for this game. The rest was big."
Auburn and Mississippi State both had to feel somewhat happy at the break because of foul trouble to both teams' best player. For the Tigers that was Killingsworth. Saddled with two fouls just three minutes into the first half, he sat for much of the remaining 17 minutes, only playing a total of four minutes in the half. Roberts was the culprit of two early fouls as well and if not for a favorable call he would have gotten number three with over 10 minutes left in the half.
With both out the teams turned to different names to make plays and that's what Monroe and Watson did. Firing up shots from the perimeter the duo helped the Tigers erase a nine-point deficit to take a lead with just over two minutes left in the first half. In 17 minutes of play Monroe was a perfect 5-5 from the floor with two assists and no turnovers. Despite trailing at the intermission Auburn was poised to take the game down to the wire. That's what the Tigers did, but it wasn't enough to earn the victory.
They return to action Wednesday night when they travel to Fayetteville to face the improving Arkansas Razorbacks. Tip-off for the game is scheduled for 7 p.m. and can be seen on Jefferson-Pilot.