Rookies Malik Newman and Quinndary Weatherspoon combined for 33 points as Mississippi State finished the regular schedule beating Auburn 79-66. The Bulldogs (13-16, 6-11 SEC) celebrated Senior Day by sending six upperclassmen out in winning style and on to the SEC Tournament as the #11 seed.
Meaning, they avoid an opening-day game which would have been a rematch with Auburn (11-18, 5-12).
Both mattered to those seniors. “I gave everything I had to give this last game,” center Gavin Ware said. “I was ready to have that first-round bye in the tournament.”
Coach Ben Howland did not know the opponent, or the matchup State will see in Nashville on the second day. “All I know is we’re playing Thursday.” It will definitely be the last of four games that day, against the #6 seed. Though Howland does know something else. “This is momentum. We have some momentum now.”
Thanks to a couple of kids who watched the seniors start, and largely struggle in the early minutes. Blame emotions; blame an unusual lineup of all-upperclassmen. Whatever the reason State trailed 8-0 before Howland could use a timeout. The coach did not question his choice of starters, though.
“The right thing,” Howland called it, after admitting “That was an incredible slow start.”
Newman and Weatherspoon, with literal assist from junior point guard IJ Ready, sped things up nicely. The first-year Dogs went wild scoring 21 consecutive points together, most of it from long range. Newman threw in a pair of three-pointers and Weatherspoon trumped him with three as Mississippi State turned a 13-11 deficit into a 32-16 lead.
“Our two freshman came off the bench and played really well,” Howland said.
Newman finished with a game-best 17 points and Weatherspoon added 16, with 25 of their points in the decisive first half. Weatherspoon was a bit more productive at the arc, 4-of-6, though he missed all other six closer shots taken.
Newman was 3-of-4 from three-point range but 7-of-11 overall, mixing the long shots with quick attacks of the goal for shorter jumpers or layups. “It felt great. It was just a good feeling to see the ball go in repeatedly.”
For some scary minutes nothing was going in, for anyone much. At 15:00 the Bulldogs had as many turnovers, six, as shots taken. “I thought we played sped-up because we wanted to do so well,” Howland said. Auburn was not a lot better though and the clubs were a combined 5-of-28 at 11:00.
State’s surge really began with a long ball from a senior, as guard Fred Thomas tied it 11-11 with a trey. It was Newman thought who gave the first Bulldog lead with his hit at 8:03. Weatherspoon followed suit, then each took turns hitting for threes again.
“When Malik got it going, it got me going,” Weatherspoon said. “Those were some big-time shots we needed.”
Meanwhile the Tigers had just three points to show from 9:09 to 2:20. “We were prepared to play and got off to a good start,” Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl said. ”I thought we got disrupted in the first half, offensively we got real stagnant and weren’t sharing the ball.”
Ware got going before halftime with eight points, including a one-handed slam of a Craig Sword lob to beat the buzzer for a 39-20 intermission margin. Auburn shot 28% in the first half and was out-boarded by ten.
To their credit the Tigers left the locker room with a better plan, picking and rolling and passing for easier interior shots. By 12:14 they had the deficit down to 52-43.
“The second half we didn’t have the killer instinct,” Howland said. What State had were a couple of seniors who weren’t letting this one get away. Sword in particular took charge. After a scoreless first half, the veteran guard got 11 second-half points and most of those to keep Auburn from really rallying.
“He settled down,” Howland said. “He was too hyped-up. He started curling to the basket, attacking the rim.” Auburn wasn’t quick enough to make the stops as Sword pushed the lead out to 16 points, and the Tigers never got closer again than 63-53.
That was when Tiger guard T.J. Dunans protested a non-foul call too loudly and drew a technical at 6:33. Though “If he didn’t get it, I certainly was trying to,” Pearl said. Ready only hit one of his free throws but by keeping possession State did get a trey from senior forward Travis Daniels.
Ware had 10 points and 12 points in his last home game, his ninth double-double of the year. Tiger guard T.J. Lang led with 16 points, forwards Horace Spencer and Tyler Harris scored 13 each, and Cinmeon Bowers ten with 11 rebounds.
Though far from the year Mississippi State wanted, the Bulldogs did exit the home court with a win. “It means a lot, with the adversity we’ve faced since we’ve been here,” Ware said. “I’m very emotional.” Which drew snickers from rookies Newman and Weatherspoon flanking him in the post-game media meeting. But, all in good fun.
“I was really happy for our seniors,” said Howland. The seven SEC wins are the most at State since 2012, and with 14 victories Howland has the most wins in any of his coaching jobs for the first season.