Which they made the most of in an effort even the victims had to admire. "I thought their team played with a higher energy, a little bit more toughness than our team did," said MSU Coach Rick Stansbury. Which matched the gutsy UG effort earlier against Kentucky. There was even a comparable finish to game-two as Zac Swansey, whose clutch three-pointer at 1.2 seconds beat the Wildcats, got to drop in the icing free throw after MSU guard Jamont Gordon's 23-foot try to tie went awry at six-tenths of a tick.
With their win(s) Georgia (16-16) not only evened the record but earned a chance to play for the SEC's automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament, against Arkansas at 3:30et Sunday. Mississippi State leaves Atlanta 22-10 and goes home to learn where the NCAA will send them as an at-large entrant. After, that is, being humbled by a team battling fatigue, foul troubles, and a favored foe.
"Of course we thought we had an advantage," MSU guard Barry Stewart admitted. "I guess they took the challenge of playing two games in a row." Not just playing, but playing better than a State team with far higher stakes to play for.
"We didn't play our best," Stansbury said. "And when you don't play your best this is what happens."
Even at their not-best the MSU Bulldogs could, probably should have taken care of the semifinal matchup whether Georgia was weary or not. Yet Mississippi State spent the whole evening seeming to play with more than play against the other Dogs. Then when game-scoring leader forward Charles Rhodes overpowered post-foes shacked by four fouls for two baskets and a 56-55 lead at 4:52 State looked ready at last to take care of business.
Except Georgia was some how, some way able to keep the advantage flipping from one side of the board to the other until 1:21, when UG guard Billy Humphrey hit a jumper just inside the arc. Stewart tried to do the same from a bit farther away. The miss kicked long to Humphrey, setting up a final 50 seconds frantic even by this tournament's astounding standards. Humphrey missed the first free throw, only to have State center Jarvis Varnado knock the ball out of bounds at 45.5 seconds with UG still leading 61-60.
Then Georgia's Corey Butler couldn't get the ball inbounds under his goal. But Stewart's driving attempt from ten feet didn't drop and Swansey came up with the carom. He naturally missed the front end of a 1-and-1 giving State one more chance to salvage the situation. Rhodes did his best to muscle through two big bodies and was surely hit on the shot, an acceptable no-call under the conditions. Except after UG won the rebound wrestling match Rhodes not only fouled but earned a technical at 7.6 seconds.
"I didn't even ask what the explanation was," said Stansbury, "it didn't matter. A tech is a tech and it was a huge lay in the game. That basically sealed it right there."
Because Humphrey made the extra free throws, while Butler missed his and Gordon was able to get off a very long heave that had no chance. The utterly ragged nature of that last minute ironically played to the advantage of a Georgia team on the literal last legs.
Yet, a club able to beat State at their own best game. "It was easy for me to watch the game and see what happened," Stansbury said. "One stat shows where it lies, we got out-rebounded 46-33." Never mind that MSU had one more ‘second chance' point and a bucket-better in paint-points; they got beaten on the glass by Georgia postmen who not only were tired but dragging fouls around the floor all evening.
Georgia even went the last seven minutes without top scorer and team heartbeat guard Sundiata Gaines, who fouled out with 20 points and four of their seven three-point goals. Forward Albert Jackson picked up much of the slack with a dozen points and out-rebounded any opposing Dog with his eight boards. Butler only took three shots, all treys, and made two; and while Humphrey and Terrance Woodberry were just 4-of-17 on the floor they did hit ‘momentum' type shots when most needed.
Rhodes ended his last SEC game with 2 points on 9-of-18 shooting and a couple of blocks. Guard Ben Hansbrough had 12 points with two treys and Stewart ten with three longballs. But they were even less accurate than their UG counterparts at 5-of-24 combined, too many of the misses coming in the final five minutes when Georgia was collapsed on Rhodes inside.
"They sat in that zone and it saved their legs," Stansbury said. "You have to make shots and the second half we were 3-for-12 (at the arc)." State was 6-of-23 there the entire evening.
The local Dogs showed they'd not cooled off much from their successful afternoon, Gaines most obviously as he drove for one bucket then nailed a pair of treys from out-top. Soon as State came out to cover, Jackson got loose inside for a stuff and 10-2 lead that had Stansbury stopping the clock at 16:57. Though what he could say to improve 1-of-9 initial shooting is anyone's guess.
"They jumped out on us quick," Stewart said. And Gaines struck again for a 15-4 advantage three minutes later. It was sub-center Brian Johnson of all people who got State moving with consecutive layups, while Rhodes rested and Varnado had his right thumb checked. Gaines had to take a break too, and his absence broke Georgia's rhythm on offense. It still took State a while to take advantage, until Gordon finally attacked for his first shot and basket at 10:34. With four starters together the Dogs gradually cut into the deficit as Hansbrough hit a trey, then free throws. His steal of an inbounds pass ended up in Gordon's hands for an open three-shot and 21-21 tie at 6:31.
Gaines was able to slow State's surge with a three, and Butler added another on what looked like an illegal tip by Bliss. Karma must have caught him as starting center Dave Bliss not only was whistled for fouling Varnado under the goal but the backcourt official thought he protested too much and added a technical, his third and fourth fouls by 5:37. Hansbrough and Varnado hit all four free shots, and Hansbrough added a pullup trey to put State in front for the first time, 28-27.
It was Jackson's turn to save Georgia's day with a couple of short jumpers that got his team into the locker room tied 33-33. That, and 32% State shooting despite the clear signs of UG Dog exhaustion down the stretch.
With Bliss still sidelined to start the last half State went right to Rhodes for three straight power baskets. Georgia was still able to better than with sub-center Jeremy Price and Jackson following Rhodes' example, and Woodbury sinking his only three. Then as soon as UG slipped back into a zone, a kickout to Stewart scored three and evened things 42-42. Gordon was able to sucker Jackson into a fourth foul, then Price into a third on a collision that bloodied the UG forward's lip. Yet Georgia had no choice but keep the big men on the court, while Stansbury shuttled in his backup posts with fresh legs and fouls to give.
And still Georgia was able to scratch and claw to stay just ahead or at worst even. Then Gaines recklessly collected a fourth foul at 12:23 on a steal attempt and had to sit, while State sent more starters back into action. Most notably Stewart, who changed the game with his consecutive treys for a 52-50 lead at 8:59. Gaines returned but for only a minute before fouling out at 7:18 on a charge, though he also got the worst of the collision with Varnado and had to be helped off.
Yet with UG's best threat out and most of the lineup a foul away from disqualification, especially those near the basket, Mississippi State didn't attack the goal often enough. "I thought we had a chance to separate the game," said Stansbury. "Then Ben missed a wide open shot in transition to put us up seven." Instead Georgia hung around long enough to just make enough things happen when everybody tensed-up to score the upset.
"We kind had a little advantage," Gordon said. "They could have been tired but they're still a good team, they came out and played hard and got the win."
"I can hardly describe how proud I am of our players," UG Coach Dennis Felton said. "Just the idea of paying two games within ours of each other, against such heated competition can be overpowering. But to find a way to win…"
While Georgia seeks a way to win a third time in just over a day's length, the Bulldogs will be at home awaiting NCAA word. Before the game Stansbury thought a victory, and SEC finals berth, would earn possibly a fifth seed in the regionals. Now, "It drops us down a line, maybe. You know what we've done, we've been pretty good. It does me zero good to think about it."
Instead coach and team will think about the new season, the post-season, when they get the official word in their locker room around 5:00 Sunday. This tournament is over, the next is coming up. "We'll find a way to be ready," said Stansbury.