State Prepares For Third Round With Tide

The matchup had just been settled, with Alabama holding off a furious Florida comeback to move into the second round. But as he and his assistants left the Georgia Dome floor, Coach Rick Stansbury's thoughts weren't so much on the opponent. It was how to get his own team ready for a 7:30 Friday contest. "That's the toughest thing. We've got a late game tomorrow so that makes for a long day."

And of course a key day if Mississippi State (21-9) intends on playing for the 2008 SEC Tournament championship. As Western Division winners the Bulldogs had the first round off, but also will be the next-to-last league team to take the Georgia Dome floor this tournament (East #2 Kentucky has an even longer wait, to around 10:00 Friday). Still Stansbury has some inevitable concerns that his squad might have enjoyed a little too long of a layoff.

So the coach is going to get the Dogs up and about Friday. "We've got a morning shoot-around from 9:30 to 10:15, after that we'll go to another gym and have a good workout."

A workout that will involve direct game preparation, for a third round with the Crimson Tide (17-15). Mississippi State swept the regular-season series, winning 66-56 in Tuscaloosa and 73-66 in Humphrey Coliseum. Both victories were earned with MSU's familiar formula of consistent defense, better rebounding, and some timely scoring spurts.

Which fans on both sides of the state line, as well as involved media, will apply to the truism that the third time around is the toughest one. Whether Stansbury puts any stock in such axioms or not, he certainly is not counting on the Bulldogs just showing up to collect #3 at Alabama's expense. Not after watching the Crimson Tide bolt to a 46-23 halftime lead, then respond with Florida closed within six in the last period with plenty time to complete a comeback. Instead of cracking, the Tide just took care of business, got the ball to scorers in open positions, covered Gator misses…and even hit a few free throws.

Just the way a team with veteran talent should, Stansbury said. "Alabama is as experienced and athletic as anybody in this league. They played awful well today. So we'll have to play awful well tomorrow."

The Tide was powered by their typical two-way punch of center Richard Hendrix and guard Mykal Riley, with 22 and 26 points. Riley was unconscious in the first half with four three-point goals; then after Alabama let down in the second period and Florida got within striking distance, the senior struck for consecutive treys that literally turned the Tide.

Stansbury wasn't surprised. "As always the guy that gets them going is Riley. When he make shots, boy, it makes that team go. And he made shots the first half. He went a ten minute period without making any, and he made them again to get them going."

Riley had only five points in the Tuscaloosa game but seven rebounds; and scored 15 points with another seven boards in Starkville. Hendrix was good for 21and 12 points in the two meetings. Stansbury said the Tide's attack was the same as he'd seen in the regular season against Florida: try to get Hendrix a quick look inside, then work the perimeter for Riley or Alonzo Gee to fire a long one.

Alabama's struggle this year has been lack of pure point guard play, not surprising with the pre-season loss of senior playmaker Ron Steele to knee surgery. Part of Florida's rally was forcing backcourt turnovers in either full-court pressure or traps at the center line. Certainly lack of aggressive ball-work at the top of the key was how State controlled both meetings, particularly the first, with All-SEC guard Jamont Gordon just having his way at each end.

In fact the Bulldogs dominated both games on the perimeter, with Gordon's faster, more physical style keeping Alabama backed-off so Barry Stewart and Ben Hansbrough were left free at the arc. Stewart scored 16 and 13 points in those wins. Hansbrough was each time coming back from problems, a broken hand the first game and illness the second. He still hit for five combined treys off the bench and 19 total points. And now he's full-health for the third meeting.

And while no current player was around then, Mississippi State does have a bit of history on their side Friday. Stansbury has coached one game against the cross-border rival in a SEC Tournament, and it was here in the Georgia Dome. In 2002, when the Bulldogs knocked off the Tide to take the championship. No such prize goes directly to the winner of Friday's rematch, but then again neither can get to the title game without getting by the other first.

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