Dogs Survive Tide, Storm In Overtime Win

Not a hail of three-pointers, nor a flurry of free throws; a thunderbolt to force overtime, or even a honest-to-Weather Channel windstorm was going to prevent Mississippi State from advancing to the SEC Tournament semifinals. But the Bulldogs' victory over Alabama came too close for comfort. Just like the whirlwind which glanced off the Georgia Dome.

"We plan for a lot of things," Coach Rick Stansbury said. "We sure don't plan for a tornado. For a moment that made you forget about the game."

Which would have been a shame for a game worth remembering even without outside circumstances. Alabama took Mississippi State literally beyond the final buzzer, watching a desperate 21-footer by Tide guard Mykal Riley from the left wing—an eerily similar shot to the one he'd hit to force overtime. This one ricocheted off the rim while the horn howled to let Mississippi State escape 69-67.

And escape was the operative word for everyone in the Georgia Dome, not just the Bulldogs. A serious windstorm, unconfirmed as tornadic, struck during the overtime period and damaged the arena's exterior. Play was halted most of an hour while the teams went to the locker room and officials checked the structure before deciding to complete competition. The Bulldogs got through the last 2:11 of OT without losing their lead, composure, or game.

"It was definitely a tough situation," said guard Jamont Gordon, who led the game in scoring and provided MSU's winning margin with free throws. "But my team kept focus and we came back and got a victory."

Mississippi State (22-9) advances to a (hopefully) Saturday semifinal matchup with the winner of the rescheduled Kentucky-Georgia game. Alabama is 17-15 with some hopes of attracting a NIT bid.

Whatever awaits the Bulldogs the rest of this SEC Tournament, or in the upcoming NCAA Championships, will have to be pretty remarkable to match the events of Friday evening by both ball clubs. After losing both regular-season contests with State, the Crimson Tide took their best shots at knocking off the Western Division champs and nearly succeeded. They hit ten treys and, for the league's worst free-throwing team, an even more remarkable 15 of 18 attempts at the stripe.

Then there was Riley's strike for a tying trey on a play run in the last two ticks of regulation for a 59-59 deadlock. So when he lofted another such shot, executed in an incredible half-of-the-final overtime second, most everyone in the house really expected it to drop. Including Bulldog guard Ben Hansbrough. "I saw it was right on target."

But not quite, perhaps thanks to the added breeze blowing through the Dome from the damaged fabric shell. Or perhaps because Tide players came out of their locker room just a tiny bit tighter for the final 2:11 than the Bulldogs, both physically and mentally. No wonder Stansbury could say "I thought our toughness was the difference in the game."

"It just shows the team's toughness and togetherness," said forward Charles Rhodes. "When we got down we always knew we could win the game."

The Bulldogs got down, including at the start of OT, but never were out. After Tide free throws took a brief lead in the extra period Hansbrough, enduring a miserable offensive evening, coolly hammered home a three-pointer at 4:13. It took almost two more minutes for anyone else to score, and it was MSU guard Barry Stewart who did it by rebounding Rhodes' miss for a 64-61 margin.

Stewart was called for fouling Bama's Alonzo Gee at 2:11, but much of the crowd and even some players had noticed the rising roar from the fortunately-unused corner of the Dome. It was the oncoming storm which slashed some holes in the Dome's covering, tore loose some trim, and loosened some ceiling and support beam materials. No one inside was hurt, though injures were reported elsewhere in the downtown area.

"It's got to be one of the worst environments I've ever been in as a player," said Rhodes. "You know, to see stuff falling from the roof."

Players were sent to their locker rooms and patrons told to stay put, though the winds were gone as quickly as they'd come.

Stansbury put the un-planned break into use, though. "The motivational speech Coach brought in there after that delay, I think that really pumped us up," Rhodes said.

"That's a difficult situation for both teams," Stansbury said, "but the team that is just going to come back and have the will and have the toughness to is going to win that game."

And the poise. Gee had made both his regulation free throws, exemplifying a season-best effort by Alabama at the line. But even with a ten-minute warmup, he looked tight putting up the 1-and-1, missing. It was rebounded by teammate Brandon Hollinger but his following trey-try also erred. On the other end Hansbrough's long shot also missed but Gordon got the carom and scored for a 66-61 difference that changed how the remaining 52 seconds were played.

Riley did make free throws at 0:36, and Gordon converted one of two chances. He'd make his next two, between consecutive tip-ins by Tide center Richard Hendrix that made it 69-67 with 0:08 to go. Hansbrough could have iced things but missed both free throws, giving the Tide a last chance.

Or, two. Because after State center Jarvis Varnado rejected Riley's baseline attempt to tie there was still 0:00.5 on the clock. Just enough for Riley to catch the pass and loose a legal shot from almost the same spot as before. This one caught the wrong iron.

"I watched the ball and thought that is in the basket, we're playing tomorrow," Tide Coach Mark Gottfried said. Except it wasn't and Alabama isn't.

Two minutes after tipoff there seemed no reason to expect drama, much less overtime trauma. It took just 48 seconds for State to collect consecutive dunks by Gordon and Rhodes and Alabama to call time. That just served to cue Varnado for six-straight points, extending State's opening 10-0 outburst. Not until Hendrix rattled in a free throw at 17:16 could Bama get on the board. The Tide big man was finding unkind iron with a series of sure shots simply rolling the wrong way.

With a double-digit lead the only Bulldog weakness was failure to make long jumpers, save for Rhodes who sank an ambitious three. All other arc attempts missed, which didn't seem much worry at first. Not until both Riley and Hollinger stuck longballs, chopping the lead to 17-16. With Hendrix frustrated inside the Tide survived on treys—a half-dozen more of them—to keep in contention. Even when State returned the starting squad on-court Alabama was able to keep taking and making long shots over the Bulldog zone.

Stansbury had been concerned Riley would duplicate his marksmanship of the previous night in beating Florida. What was happening here was worse. "In the first half everybody was making shots. I just didn't think they could keep doing that."

A turnaround-banker by Justin Knox tied things up 27-all at 5:20. The Tide couldn't cash in the first two shots for a lead, as State went back to man-defense, but with the Bulldogs self-destructing on their own end it was just a matter of more chances. Rico Pickett did the honors at 3:21 on, of course, a three-shot. Riley added yet another, then his steal-and-slam suddenly had Alabama in front 36-27 and Stansbury stopping play.

It took free shots by Gordon and Stewart for State to get to the locker room only down by seven. Where the Dogs were 1-of-10 at the arc, the Tide was a startling 8-of-16 for two-thirds of their points. Though Stansbury saw hope in that.

"They had four two-point field goals in the first half, we were 1-of-10, and only down seven. We found the positive things to draw from."

It wasn't all positive thinking though as Gordon was more pragmatic. "I knew I had to step my game up. I knew if we were going to win I'd have to pick my game up." He did it by attacking the basket directly for fast scores.

Alabama did match that with Hendrix finally getting some inside buckets, maintaining a eight-point cushion at the second media timeout. Then the Tide touch left, with help as State's man-defense cranked up the intensity.

"The guys dug-in and found that extra energy you have to have to win," Stansbury said. On the other end Stewart had his first successful trey-try and Varnado finished with a stuff that had the deficit down to three points and coaxed a timeout. If the huddle-call was for Hollinger to be left alone out front and hit, it worked.

For the next six minutes both sides sputtered with forced misses and unforced errors. Which mostly worked in Alabama's favor as they were able to stay ahead, until Hansbrough pulled State within 52-51 with free throws. Hendrix missed a jumper and Gee a drive off the rebound, and Gordon got the ball to an open Hansbrough on the right wing for three points and a 54-52 Bulldog advantage.

Twice the Tide tied, and each time the Dogs answered with Gordon making it 58-56 on a flying slam. Varnado blocked Gee's layup try and State could have worked clock, but Gordon's entry pass was batted and picked at 0:26. Pickett should have turned it over on a slip but a Bulldog kicked the ball for a re-set at 13.1 ticks.

Hendrix tried to tie and Varnado got a piece of the ball, which ended up in Stewart's hands. He made the first free throw, missed the second, but also disrupted Alabama's run upcourt by knocking the ball out-of-bounds with only two ticks remaining. UA's Demetrius Jemison had to throw the ball in from midcourt and Riley had to spin away from Hansbrough to catch the pass. Yet the senior had presence of mind to set up and take a real shot, which rattled off then in at the buzzer.

State was actually fortunate that was all that happened. "I tried to foul him and they didn't call it!" admitted Hansbrough. So the Tide wasn't given a chance to end the evening in regulation, leading to the bizarre events of overtime. Really, though, the Bulldogs had changed things in their favor after halftime by cooling off the hot shooters. "They had five field goals the second half, that's the difference in the game," Stansbury said.

Riley finished with 18 points, Gee with 15, and Hendrix with 15 points and 13 of the Tide's 42 rebounds. Rhodes only had one bucket after halftime and finished with 15 points, eight boards. Varnado more than picked up the slack with a double-double of 10 points and 11 boards. Stewart scored 11 points and eight rebounds. State only made four treys in 20 tries, but shot 21-of-38 on closer attempts.

"Obviously we didn't shoot it very well tonight," Stansbury said. But under 40% accuracy was still good enough in the end. "Defend and rebound, that's what gave us a chance to win the game."

As of this posting, State was awaiting official word on the rest of the SEC Tournament schedule which was being revised long after midnight, pending agreement with CBS on how to handle the planned Sunday championship game telecast.

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