Nor could Mississippi State (21-13) have asked for any better send-off than their 86-71 rout of visiting Florida State in the NIT's North regional showdown in Humphrey Coliseum. A crowd of 9,013 watched their home team earn the right to meet West Virginia in the semifinal on March 27. Florida State ended the season 22-13.
"What a game," said Coach Rick Stansbury. "I'm just glad this team has the opportunity to experience this, to play this time of year and go to New York and compete for a championship is something special."
State's last home game of the NIT and season was pretty special in and of itself. A campaign-best six Bulldogs—three of them backups--scored in double-digits, and MSU led for all but 78 seconds of the forty clock minutes. Even what the Dogs did wrong often worked out right as despite being out-shot 52% to 42% State was able to collect 20 offensive rebounds and convert those into 16 points.
And while the Seminoles did make over half their field-goal attempts, this was no indictment of the Dog defense. Not when they benefited from 25 Florida State turnovers, directly producing another 29 Bulldog points. "We turned a very good Florida State team over 25 times," Stansbury said. "We out-rebounded a bigger, athletic team by nine and have 20 offensive rebounds to their nine."
Actually the ‘Noles weren't the bigger team for very long. It took barely four minutes for senior forward and all-American candidate to pick up his second personal foul and be consigned to the bench for the rest of the first half. Starting center Uche Echefu also had two fast fouls and played just six minutes of the first period, taking almost all FSU's size from the floor.
Yet this turned FSU into a perimeter team and allowed one hot-shot to shine. Guard Isaiah Swann, a 9.6-point scorer this year, lit State up for 19 points in the first half and 31 for the night. He took 13 shots from behind the arc and hit nine for career highs in treys and points both. "It was real big to put Thornton on the bench," MSU center Charles Rhodes said. "But Swann was just unbelievable. It's a good thing both of them weren't clicking at the same time."
Thornton, who had one basket in his brief first half appearance, finished with 16 points and a team-best six rebounds. Guard Toney Douglas, who State saw twice two seasons ago with Auburn, scored 12 points with five assists. But the other six ‘Noles participating provided a combined 12 points. The Bulldog bench nearly tripled that with 34 points.
Starting point forward Jamont Gordon led State with 16 points, though he was just 3-of-12 on the floor. Nine of his points came at the stripe. Gordon also provided seven assists and six rebounds with three of State's 15 steals. Rhodes scored 14 points with six boards and a pair of blocks, and Slater 13 points. Off the bench, guards Ben Hansbrough and Barry Stewart had 12 and 10 points with three treys while backup center Jarvis Varnado had ten points.
"Give them a lot of credit," FSU Coach Leonard Hamilton said. "They played focused and with a lot of poise. Every time we seemed to go on some sort of run Mississippi State had an answer."
State wasn't so focused offensively at first, settling for perimeter shots and mostly missing. The defense was another matter. "We were just picking them off," Gordon said. "We played great help-defense tonight. They were careless with the ball and we took advantage of it." Transition set up scores or free throws for a 11-6 Bulldog lead. Just as importantly Echefu and Thornton already had a pair of personals and were sitting.
The Seminoles continued to self-destruct, making more and trickier passes than needed against MSU's man-defense and losing control with eight turnovers in seven minutes. Even after the first round of subs the Dogs held momentum, with a Stewart trey making it 17-9 at 12:20. "I want to give Mississippi State credit for aggressive defense," Hamilton said. "But about half of them were unforced. We were our own worst enemy."
And Swann their best hope as he hit his first six shots, five of them for three-pointers and most while Gordon was taking a break. "I'm not so sure we wanted Thornton or Swann shooting it," Stansbury said. "If Thornton was in there he wouldn't have been so aggressive offensively, so that balanced out." After Swann rallied FSU within a point Douglas gave the ‘Noles the lead 22-21 at 8:08.
It lasted as long as Hansbrough needed to call his own number and stick the three. Rhodes shook off a hard foul to bank one in, then Gordon stole FSU's inbounds pass and fed Richard Delk for the easy layup. Swann finally missed something and on the other end Rhodes didn't for a 30-22 Bulldog lead. "By then we were already in our rhythm, we were already up," Gordon said. More Seminole mistakes set up other State opportunities to extend the margin to 42-29 at intermission, the last basket coming on a sort-of halfcourt shot from Stewart that turned into an assist to Varnado at the buzzer.
Slater started the second half as he had the first, striking for three points, and Gordon hit three free throws to expand the lead to 16 just a minute into the period. But Thornton showed what sort of difference he might have made earlier with a trey and jumper, and both Gordon and Rhodes got their third personals in the same 16th minute. Then Thornton did also at 15:19.
The difference was the Dog duo stayed in the game while FSU's star was in-and-out at deadballs. Including the clock-stop by Hamilton after Rhodes free throws and a Richard Delk three made it a 55-38 difference.
"We came out of the locker room at halftime and never got it under double-digits," Stansbury said. "That's what you want a team to do." It was 63-47 when Douglas popped a pair, and Thornton got a loose ball at one end and dunked it on the other with Stewart grabbing him too late. Stansbury earned a technical protesting but Thornton missed one of those two free throws, then his bonus try so it was just a three-point trip instead of five. And Slater got it all back on his hard drive for a layup and foul.
The rest was a matter of playing out the string for both States with MSU's lead peaking at 84-65 on Gordon free throws. Senior Slater got to take a curtain call at 1:13, the play halted by Rhodes drawing his fifth foul which let him acknowledge the crowd as well. MSU's other senior, forward Piotr Stelmach, also got to score a basket in his final appearance at The Hump.
State ended up with a 39-31 advantage in rebounding, not to mention all those offensive boards and second-chances at easy baskets garnered when Florida State had to go with a four-guard lineup too many minutes. Still that was another sort of defensive challenge for the Dogs to handle, especially Swann. "He made huge shots, contested shots," Stansbury said. "But outside that I don't know if anybody got going for them."
Instead the Bulldogs will be going to New York, likely leaving Sunday to prepare for Tuesday's semifinal. It is the first time of six NIT participations Mississippi State has advanced so far. It will also bring a first-ever meeting with the Mountaineers, 71-67 Tuesday winners over North Carolina State. Still whether new foes or familiar faces, the Bulldogs are eager for the opportunity.
"Getting a chance to play for another championship, it's going to be great for us," Gordon said. "I'm ready to go."