Dogs Protect Home Floor Against Auburn 91-88

Maybe they still make things much more interesting than necessary. And maybe they allow lesser opposition bigger numbers than usual. All that matters is Mississippi State remains perfect in homecourt conference play after outlasting Auburn. "In this league you take the win and move on and get ready for the next one," Coach Rick Stansbury said.

After, that is, breathing a healthy sigh of relief following a 91-88 victory over the visiting Tigers. #22 Mississippi State used a bunch of late free throws to hold off upset-minded Auburn and improve to 18-5 with a 6-3 conference record. And, extend the Humphrey Coliseum court streak to 12 games with four league wins. Auburn left 13-10, 3-6.

But they left an impression in MSU minds, too, having made the home team work longer and much harder than the matchups projected. State repeatedly looked on the verge of grabbing control, only to see the Tigers claw back into something close to contention. In that sense it mirrored the other three home SEC successes which came by four, four, and five points.

"We get a big lead and I guess let it slip sometimes," guard Dee Bost said. "I'm getting tired of it!" Just not tired of adding Ws to the record regardless of margin.

The difference this time was where previous nailbiters were low-scoring affairs, Saturday saw an entirely unexpected shootout in the Hump. A Tiger team averaging just 54 points and 36% shooting for SEC season went wild. The 88 points were a season-high; the 46% shooting best against a top-level conference team since December.

So all 91 Bulldog points proved necessary. "Offense wasn't a problem," Stansbury said. "Just defensively we didn't lock-in and take care of things the way we needed to."

Offense was certainly not a State problem. The Bulldogs bombed Auburn for 12 three-point goals, actually shooting better from the arc than the overall 60%. Four starters and one bench Dog notched double-digits, led by 21 points from junior forward Arnett Moultrie.

The offense was so sound in fact that Moultrie had his double-double string snapped with just seven boards. "Not a lot of rebounds were falling," he joked. Because Auburn was also shooting well, against a Dog defense that wasn't nearly so sharp.

"Give Auburn some credit," Stansbury said. "Offensively they can get on a roll, and they got on a roll tonight and made some shots. And they got to the foul line, probably more than anybody has against us."

Indeed so as aggressive Tigers drew fouls in shooting settings, producing 36 chances and 26 points. But State's coach was not second-guessing the officiating at all because his own team went to the line lots as well with 35 attempts. That was somewhat inflated by late-game fouling of course. However it almost didn't matter because State made just 21 such chances, most glaringly in the last minute when only a few more one-pointers would have sealed it sooner.

"That was bad stat for us," Stansbury said about 21-of-35 work. "We didn't separate totally just because of free throw shooting, we let them hang around."

Bost wasn't hanging around for the finish, having fouled out for the first time since his sophomore season opener; a 68-game stretch. Before exiting he had 15 points and a team-best four treys, three of them consecutively early in the second half when State should have taken complete charge. Bost added seven assists to his school-record total, but wasn't top Dog there for a change.

It was starter Brian Bryant handing out a career-best nine scoring passes, more than his seven points, without a single turnover. Bryant more than stepped up to the challenge of filling in for Bost those 16 minutes the point guard was sitting. So did backup guard Jalen Steele, who didn't get credit for any assists but did get points. He knocked down three timely treys in a 13-point effort playing off Bryant nicely.

"It's just being real comfortable," Steele said. "Coach is like go out and play your game and do what you do best." Forward Rodney Hood had three treys of his own en route to 11 points with six rebounds and a pair of blocks, while center Renardo Sidney hit all five of his field goals including a trey for 17 points.

Auburn arrived shooting under 28% at the arc for SEC season, but belied the numbers early. Kenny Gabriel and Varez Ward got longballs to fall as the Tigers kept pace all first half. They even led by four a couple of turns, just never so far in front that State couldn't stay in reach. Five Sidney points and a Hood threefer meant a six-point MSU margin with three minutes left in the half, but Stansbury was subbing to rest his short lineup.

Auburn, which began playing at a conservative clip, changed tempo against flat-footed defenders. Gabriel beat the buzzer for a three and a 44-43 Tiger halftime lead. Bost had taken just three shots all first period; he matched that immediately to open the second and made them all from there-point range. "The first one was open, the other two contested. I was just feeling it so I pulled it," Bost said.

When Steele hammered home consecutive treys of his own the Bulldogs were on their way to a 66-53 lead, which should have made the remaining 11:00 minutes of statistical interest only. Should have. The Tigers got an occasional three to drop but relied much more on quicker guards and cautious State post defense leery of picking up cheap fouls.

Stansbury pointed to a missed Steele trey-try, a good one from Sullivan, and a Bost turnover and layup as the breakdown. "It was a five-point swing, that's a huge momentum play there. The difference was they drove that ball way too much in the lane." Usually with the 6-2 Ward or 5-10 Josh Wallace who made much bigger Dogs look frozen in place. A fourth foul on Bost at 9:02 didn't help the defense.

But it didn't hurt the offense too badly either. In fact State attacked the lane to draw defenders, then deal to Moultrie or Sidney or sub-center Wendell Lewis for sure-thing shots. Auburn also did the Dogs a favor sticking in zone defense, which let State burn some seconds with perimeter passing and give the posts a few extra breaths. All was going well enough until Bost foolishly fouled Sullivan on a missed three-pointer for three free throws.

Moultrie might have iced it all with a trademark power layup and three-point play at 1:40. "It was time to seal the game," Moultrie said. Except it didn't because from then on State would only shoot free throws, and miss seven out of 14 chances. Fortunately reserve guard Shaun Smith nailed his two at 0:09 and Moultrie made one, meaning the Tigers never got within a possession.

Smith's seven minutes were more than twice his prior SEC total (3 in two games) but brought five points including a made trey. "He got us through," said Stansbury.

Ward came off Auburn's bench for a game-best 24 points, with 22 from starter Gabriel with four of his team's six treys. Sullivan finished with 16 points. Auburn was uncharacteristically good at the arc in the first half, 4-of-9, but were 2-of-11 the last half and several of those were clear, open looks. Had they fallen…

Stansbury wasn't at all happy with lack of defense. True, the Dogs had enjoyed an open date to get their legs back under them. But that wasn't a complete positive to the coach. "That's the plusses and minuses, it adjust some things. It's good we had that rest, and we backed off them. The opposite side is it changes your routine, we didn't defend every day last week. And give Auburn some credit."

Just give State the win, which sets up Thursday evening's rematch with Ole Miss (6:00). The Rebels upset State 75-68 back on January 18 but the Bulldogs aren't nearly as concerned now with intangible revenge as they are the need to keep improving their record, RPI, and NCAA status. And, to protect the home court again.

"We found a way to get it done, and move on," Stansbury said.

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