Gordon had more of a hand in winning than collecting that tipped Wildcat pass with three seconds left in OT. He had sent the game into extra play by draining a three-pointer to beat the buzzer and tie the tally 76-76, in the process scoring the last of his team-best 26 points.
The finish(es) may have been more dramatic than necessary, as the Bulldogs had wasted a double-digit lead earned midway through the last half. But when it came down to do-or-die, Stansbury's team did. "They never gave up. They kept fighting to give themselves a chance to win at the end of the game."
With their win the Bulldogs, the Western Division top-seed, advance to Saturday's semifinal round against Arkansas, a 72-71 winner over Vanderbilt. They also sent Kentucky (21-11) home to await their own NCAA fate. It will take some post-season success to soothe the sting of losing so early in a SEC Tournament, especially after the Wildcats led by three points with five seconds left in regulation and guard Bobby Meek was on the line shooting to put it away.
Except a Wildcat stepped across the line too early with Meeks holding the ball already, a violation costing any fourth point. And five seconds was sufficient for Gordon to get downcourt and connect, not only un-fouled but un-guarded, on his only trey of the day.
Mississippi State fell behind immediately in OT and lost C Charles Rhodes to fouls in the process on a three-point play by Wildcat middle-man Randolph Morris. Lone senior regular and defensive stalwart F Dietric Slater had already fouled out in regulation. Yet instead of cracking, a bunch of pups played like old Dogs.
"That's the thing about having players," said center-turned-cheerleader Rhodes, "when one goes down another steps up." Such as third-string post Vernon Goodridge who banked in a basket over Morris. And freshman guard Ben Hansbrough who bombed the corner-trey at 3:14 for a 81-79 Bulldog lead. Morris did put his team back in front with a tip-in at 1:15 and the Wildcats got the ball back on a Goodridge turnover. But after Meeks missed his jumper Stewart beat coverage for his lead-basket.
"I just out-ran them," the rookie said, "I knew ‘Mont had the rebound and ran on out and he saw me." Stewart was also fouled on the layup, missing that free throw. After UK guard Joe Crawford's driving layup try was blocked at the other end Stewart ended up with the rebound and was fouled again. He made just one of these chances but it was enough, and Stewart atoned for any foul-line failings by tipping away the inbounds throw so Gordon could recover and clinch the victory.
"It was a great college basketball game," said UK Coach Tubby Smith. "Certainly we want to compliment Mississippi State, they've got a very talented team."
Stansbury likes that talent but loved the toughness his team showed. Mentally, they shook off pressures from both a Wildcat comeback and their thousands of howling blue boosters. Physically the Bulldogs went toe-to-toe, as well as elbow-to-elbow and forearm-to-forearm, with an older, stouter opponent, while the officiating crew wisely backed away and let everybody play. Only 50 total fouls (26 State, 24 UK) were called and that many more could have been assessed both ways. Such stats should not have favored a younger, less-physical Bulldog roster.
Yet even after their first two shots of the day got swatted State kept attacking on offense, and on the defensive end they were every bit Kentucky's match in intensity. That's where we won the game, our ability to defend," said Stansbury. It took the Wildcats three minutes to score a basket and that came on a tip by Morris.
But once that ice was broken Kentucky ran off ten-straight points for a 10-5 lead at 13:46. The margin was still five when the Dogs, who had been putting up too many long shots and missing, went back at the rack. Slater scored a rebound and Richard Delk a layup, then Rhodes outran other big men for a go-ahead basket. Slater, playing with three official injuries and other aches and ills, somehow got a loose ball to rattle in and drew a foul. His three-point play had State in front 19-15 at 8:37.
Kentucky caught a breath and went right to their strengths as Morris powered for a three-point play himself and Perry Stevenson dunked a rebound. The Kats also switches to zone which baffled the Bulldog ballhandlers. Sheray Thomas got a long jumper to rattle in and 6-9 Stevenson banked over Slater for a 25-19 UK advantage. Their lead reached 29-21 on Morris free throws at 4:01. He would add three more charity tosses before the break, but Gordon got a forced jumper to bank safely in and drove for a layup to cut State's halftime deficit to 34-31. Considering their 34% shooting and 1-of-11 results at the arc the Bulldogs were fortunate to be so close.
Everything changed when play resumed, though Morris did get a fast three-point play to pad that margin. Kentucky came back to court in man-defense and Gordon made them pay with three-straight hard drives at the hole for seven points. As fast as that State was in front again. "We couldn't stop him off the dribble all day, especially the second half," Smith said.
"I thought the first five minutes of the second half was critical for us," said Stansbury. "We came out and went on a run to take that lead. And when Charles picked up his fourth foul we had enough cushion to survive." That foul came at 17:42 after Rhodes had worked for five-straight points and a 45-39 lead. Even getting him off the court did not solve Kentucky's problems as a smaller, faster Dog team slashed and burned for layup buckets, or hit kick-out jumpers. Such as Hansbrough's trey for a 49-41 score that had Smith stopping the clock.
Two minutes later he had to do so again, after Slater and Gordon drove nearly unchallenged for eight points and a 57-43 Bulldog lead. There was still nearly a dozen minutes left though, plenty of time for a veteran Wildcat club to pull themselves together. While it didn't start the comeback in earnest, Bradley's trey did put some life back in his stunned squad.
Crawford was the real motivating force, driving the lane for baskets and free throws. Bobby Perry had a timely trey to make the margin 63-57 and as State got sloppy with the ball the Wildcats kept creeping closer. Crawford made it a two-point game at 6:22 with a post-steal layup. Kentucky also went to the zone full-time.
This time Gordon beat it with passes, such as to Slater for a back-door layup to check UK momentum. Not stop it entirely though, as by 3:58 the Kats had caught up 68-68. Soon Slater was sitting as he stopped a breakaway with his fifth foul, and Meeks hit free shots for the first Kentucky lead since 18:17 of the opening half.
Down the stretch State had six free shots and made half of them for a 73-all tie going into the last minutes. Crawford missed a shot for the lead but Thomas tipped it in at 0:28, and Gordon was trapped into a turnover six seconds later. But the Wildcats blew this first chance to put things away as Morris missed both free chances at 0:17. Then after Stewart missed a top-trey Meeks went to the stripe for his fateful free shots and the startling violation call that gave Gordon his chance to play hero.
"I thought we had the momentum as a team and we had a lot of energy going into overtime," said Stewart.
"Jamont was a warrior all day long," Stansbury said. "That last shot was big just to give us a chance." A chance to win in overtime, which the Bulldogs cashed in even with Rhodes and Slater unable to help. "Everybody had to step it up one more notch," said Gordon.
Rhodes scored 15 points before fouling out with seven rebounds and three of State's six blocks. Slater contributed 13 points and six boards, and off the bench Hansbrough had a dozen points with a couple of treys. The Bulldogs were only 5-of-18 at the arc but shot 55% on anything closer to the rim. And they were 3-of-4 in overtime, compared to 2-of-10 for Kentucky.
The Wildcats were 38% shooters for the day and 5-of-21 on trey-tries. Morris had a game-best 29 points and 15 rebounds but could never quite take over the afternoon even with Rhodes playing only 24 of the 45 minutes. "We just piecemealed it," said Stansbury, with freshman Jarvis Varnado and second-year junior Goodridge filling the void. "Somehow we managed to hang in there long enough without CR to keep ourselves in striking distance." State was only out-rebounded 43-40 as a result.
Crawford scored 20 points on 8-of-21 shooting and Meeks had 14.
The Bulldogs can't enjoy their victory too long as they prepare for Saturday's semifinal round. Conventional thinking is State needs a bare minimum of two SEC Tourney wins just to be considered for a NCAA bid. Even that might not suffice given results from other tournaments around the country this weekend. So the best thing the Dogs can do is win this event and secure the automatic bid.
"It's a three game season," Stansbury said. "We understand that's one win. We've got the next hurdle that will be Arkansas. Our guys will be ready."