Mississippi State (21-1, 10-1 Southeastern Conference) moved up two spots Monday to fourth in the Associated Press men¹s college basketball poll, but only after picking up a pair of extremely difficult road wins with stops three days apart at Columbia, S.C., and Fayetteville, Ark.
However, Mississippi State had to go into overtime before getting a hard-earned "W" at South Carolina, turning back the Gamecocks, 79-74, at the jam-packed Colonial Center. Four Bulldogs - SEC "Player of the Week" Lawrence Roberts, co-captain Timmy Bowers, resilient Shane Power, and unsung hero Branden Vincent - played 40 or more minutes in the intense SEC duel at Carolina, leaving the Dogs "drained" with a long road journey remaining to Arkansas.
Playing with as much energy as anyone while putting together three straight double-digit scoring outings, Winsome Frazier probably would have logged near the 40-minute mark had he not fouled out in regulation time before tying the game with a late steal and layup. He finished with 12 points.
Frazier had another impressive outing against the Razorbacks, nailing five 3-pointers, in addition to hitting a pair of clutch free throws after Arkansas had cut the deficit to three points in the final seconds. Frazier had 23 points, joining Roberts in double figures.
Roberts had his 13th double-double of the season and 35th of his career with 19 points and 12 rebounds in the Dogs second win over the Razorbacks this season. Power added 17 points and Bowers 10 with Vincent getting six points while helping control the boards for the Bulldogs.
Mississippi State shot 58 percent from the field, and connected on 9-of-20 of its 3-point attempts. The Dogs made their first five "3's" to take a double-digit lead while managing to hold off the Hogs down the stretch to post a sweet, sweet Valentine's victory.
Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said the team left a lot at Columbia, not to mention Fayetteville and Bud Walton Arena, where the Bulldogs had not won since the facility was opened on the Arkansas campus.
"Obviously, we're physically worn out," said Stansbury after the Bulldogs held off Arkansas, 77-70, in the grueling battle with the raging Razorbacks, who had won three straight league games at Bud Walton.
Stansbury said unlike the week before when the Bulldogs were in "rhythm" and everybody wanted to continue playing that "this week's rest comes at a good time" with all concerned needing a break from the daily routine.
Maintaining its perfect road record, nationally-ranked Mississippi State picked up valuable ground in the Southeastern Conference race with the impressive win at Arkansas. It was MSU's 10th straight win on the road without a loss. The Bulldogs only loss this season was a one-point, heart-breaking, 67-66, setback against Kentucky on Jan. 13 in Starkville.
Kentucky (17-4, 7-3 SEC) lost to Georgia, 74-68, over the weekend, marking the second defeat this season at the hands of the Georgians.
Defending SEC Western Division champion Mississippi State increased its lead in the overall race to 2 1/2 games coupled with Kentucky's loss at Georgia, while also maintaining the same margin over LSU in the West. The Bengals, one of five conference games remaining on the Bulldogs menu, defeated Florida 73-68 to hang on to the runner-up spot in the West.
No. 4 Mississippi State has a spotless road record in league play, improving to 6-0 with the win at Arkansas. The Dogs now focus on a dangerous and well-equipped Alabama squad.
"A very good Alabama team is coming in and we'll be back at The Hump before our fans," said Stansbury, adding "our fans are the best in the country."
Bidding to make the NCAA field with a strong late-season surge, the Tide turned back Tennessee, 83-70, Saturday at Coleman Coliseum in Tuscaloosa, Ala., with its leading scorer Earnest Shelton back in the lineup after being injured midway the season. Shelton finished with 27 points despite a sore knee.
Alabama (12-9, 4-6 SEC) has a midweek game Wednesday against Vanderbilt at Tuscaloosa. Mark Gottfried's Tide closes out the regular season March 6, hosting the front-running Bulldogs.
The Bulldogs now get a much-deserved rest before taking on Alabama and LSU in back-to-back home dates. Tip-off for Saturday's SEC duel with the Crimson Tide is set for 3 p.m., while LSU visits Wednesday, Feb. 25 for a 7 p.m. rematch at The Hump.
Don Foster, a veteran newspaper writer who is the Sports Editor for the Starkville Daily News, writes a weekly article for Gene's Page. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org