Tigers sent packing

LSU and Mississippi State had an epic battle a little over a month ago with the Tigers coming out on top, 97-94, in double overtime. The Bulldogs and Tigers squared off again in the semifinals of the 2009 SEC Tournament on Saturday and this time it was the Bulldogs coming out victorious as they sent the Tigers home with a 67-57 loss.


The only resemblance of this meeting and the one before was LSU's foul trouble and the dominant play of Mississippi State center Jarvis Varnado.


The six-foot-nine, 210 pound post player had his way with the Tigers as he scored 19 points, pulled down seven rebounds and blocked seven of LSU's shots.


To make matters worse, LSU's leading scorer Marcus Thornton fouled out with 2:36 left after scoring only 14 points on 5 of 19 shooting, including a 0 for 6 showing from 3-point range.


The Tigers (26-7) shot 31 percent from the floor and hit a mere 4 of 16 threes which made it very tough against a Bulldog squad that was trying to play its way into the NCAA tournament.


“You need to tip your hat to Mississippi State; thought they played well,” said LSU head coach Trent Johnson. “Obviously, from looking at the stat sheet we didn't shoot the ball very well. We were outrebounding them. Our assist to turnover ratio is pretty good. We need to do a better job trying to attack the rim so we can get to the free throw line.”


Shooting was a problem for the Tigers but some will point to the disparity in fouls called as to a factor in the game. Mississippi State was whistled for only 13 fouls and sent the Tigers to the line 13 times where they connected on nine shots. LSU, however, was whistled for 26 fouls and the Bulldogs made the Tigers pay by hitting 24 of 35 from the charity stripe.


“As hard as it is for me to say it, that's not what beat us,” Coach Johnson said. “What beat us is our inability to execute, and Mississippi State's ability to make plays.”


Mississippi State got out of the blocks quickly and led by as many as six in the first half until a Thornton layup at the 7:16 mark gave LSU its first lead of the game. The two teams went back and forth for the remainder of the half and Rick Stansbury’s club took a 31-29 lead into the locker room.


The first half stats were about as close as the score.


The Bulldogs hit 36 percent from the field including 29 percent of its threes compared to LSU's 35 and 25 percent, respectively. The Bulldogs had a slight 23-22 advantage on the boards and each turned it over only three times.


The one area that heavily favored Mississippi State was second chance points as the Bulldogs had nine compared to LSU's two and much of their success was attributed to Varnado. The big man had 13 points and a pair of blocks while LSU's center, Chris Johnson, played only three minutes and had only two fouls to show for it, along with a rebound and an assist.


Johnson’s problems continued as he picked up his third foul only 1:13 into the second half and he tacked on his fourth at the 8:24 mark. Quintin Thornton, who filled in admirably for Johnson, played 19 minutes and grabbed a career-high 10 rebounds with two blocked shots, but he couldn’t muster any offense and was held scoreless by Varnado and Co.


Varnado also had a hand in shutting down Tasmin Mitchell, who scored six of LSU's first 12 points out of the half, but went scoreless over the final 11 minutes and attempted only two shots.


“Tasmin Mitchell was coming at me pretty tough and starting to get a rhythm in,” said Mississippi State guard Phil Turner. “And Jarvis said let me switch off on him and throw a different look at him. So we switched it up for a while on a couple of plays and he put me back on him so he couldn't get a rhythm going on me. I think that was a great call by Jarvis just seeing that during the game.”


Early in the second half LSU was still in it and threatened to take the lead for the first time since late in the first half, but Marcus Thornton missed a three at the 14:42 mark. Turner attempted an NBA-range three on the other end of the floor and he rattled it home to turn a one point lead into a four point margin. Brian Johnson hit a pair of free throws and Kodi Augustus went backdoor for a slam to give the Bulldogs their largest lead of the game at 47-39 with 11:21 left.


The two teams traded buckets before LSU cut it to four off a Marcus Thornton layup and tip by Johnson, which was his first basket of the game with 7:52 remaining.


However, a 14-2 run by the Bulldogs where they hit 10 of 13 from the line broke LSU's back and sent the Tigers back to Baton Rouge.


“I think we kind of got unraveled at times,” said Marcus Thornton. “You know the calls weren't going our way every time. But you know, they beat us to loose balls. They did everything they had to do to win the game and that's what happened.”


LSU was led by Mitchell, who scored 15 points on 7 of 18 shooting, but he was the only Tiger to accompany Marcus Thornton is double figures. Garrett Temple added seven points, while Storm Warren and Terry Martin chipped in six and five points off the bench, respectively.


Barry Stewart scored 17 for Mississippi State and came up big down the stretch. He nailed free throw after free throw during the Bulldogs’ run with four straight on Marcus Thornton’s fifth foul and Delwan Graham’s technical.


LSU will now await word from the NCAA Selection Committee on which regional it will be sent to and where it will be seeded before hitting the court to correct some mistakes.


This marked the fourth consecutive game where the Tigers shot less than 40 percent from the floor and they dropped three of those four contests. Coach Johnson doesn’t think there is a quick fix to the shooting woes, but the guys will work on it when they get home.


“Well, what we can do to address it is not a concern,” said Coach Johnson. “We're playing good teams and we're playing good players. So in terms of addressing it, we'll do what we've always done. We'll do what we did to win 26 games. We'll keep working on the same things.”


Mississippi State (22-12) will meet the winner of the Tennessee/Auburn contest in the tournament finals on Sunday for an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament.

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