Dogs' 'Super Mario' named SEC Player of Week

It didn't take Mississippi State's Mario Austin, an All-American candidate, but one game to get back into rhythm on the hardwood.<P> Missing from the lineup for the first six games of the season before the NCAA cleared the "big man" to play, Austin was Monday named the "SEC Player of the Week" for helping lead the Bulldogs to an impressive, 71-61, win over No. 13 Xavier in New York City.

Austin got the "green light" from the NCAA two days before the team departed for the "Big Apple" and a date with the battle-tested Musketeers who like the Bulldogs advanced to the second round of the postseason playoffs last March.

They're still buzzing in New York City following the All-American candidate's Saturday debut on Broadway at Madison Square Garden.

The imposing 6-9 center-forward, referred to as "Super Mario" by Mississippi State fans and especially "Rick's Rowdies," picked up additional honors after his performance in the media capital of country.

In addition to the SEC accolades, Austin earned national recognition, being named Dick Vitale's Player of the Week while also wracking-up Star of the Week honors.

Cleared hardly a week ago to play in his first game of the season, Austin responded in midseason form against the "physical-minded" Musketeers of the Atlantic 10 Conference. The reigning SEC Tournament MVP poured in 28 points, 20 coming in the second half, and had nine rebounds as the Dogs won their sixth straight after dropping their season opener with Austin able to cheer only from the sidelines.

Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury, delighted with his early Christmas present, didn't know how much his broad-shouldered junior would be able to play in his debut, but was obviously happy to see the outstanding performance turned in by one of his key veterans.

Austin had to wait, mired in uncertainty, for weeks and days, until the NCAA cleared up some lingering questions about his eligibility. It didnÕt take nearly that long to get back into the swing of things for the gifted student athlete.

It marks the third SEC Player of the Week honor for Austin in but his third season in Starkville. He is now tied with former MSU standouts Erick Dampier, now swatting shots and slam dunking in the NBA, and guard Darryl "Super D" Wilson as three-time recipients of the weekly honor.

A Wooden All-American Award and Naismith College Player of the Year nominee, Austin connected on 12-of-21 from the field where later in the evening the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics took the court. Included in Austin's arsenal was his first 3-pointer since sinking a crucial "3" in a big overtime win over the Kentucky Wildcats last year at The Hump.

Mississippi State was also rewarded Monday following its resounding win in the top 25 match at The Garden with a boost in both The Associated Press and USA Today/ESPN Top 25 polls.

The Bulldogs nailed down the No. 16 slot in the AP and climbed to No. 17 in USA Today/ESPN Top 25, moving up from No. 24 and No. 22 respectively.

Mississippi State coach Sharon Fanning's Lady Bulldogs also moved up in the national polls following the school's "twin wins" in New York and Chicago, a day sure to go down in the Maroon & White record books as "awesome!"

Ranked No. 14 in the AP Women's poll, moving up a couple of notches from No. 16, the Lady Dogs posted an impressive, 72-67, win Saturday over the University of Illinois Fighting Illini at the United Center in Chicago, Ill. Traveling to the "Windy City" without three-time All-American LaToya Thomas, who had a family tragedy, the Lady Dogs had several players step up for the Maroon & White, including sophomore guard Tan White, the "SEC Newcomer of the Year," who led three players in double figures with 19 points, a season-high six steals and five assists.

Both Mississippi State editions will be on the road this week with the Bulldogs traveling Wednesday to the Capital City of Jackson to take on Georgia State, while the Lady Bulldogs will participate in the University of Central Florida Classic at Orlando, Fla., Dec. 19-20. The Lady Dogs will play Bethune-Cookman in the opening round Thursday at 2 p.m.

The Bulldogs tip-off at 7 p.m. against Charles "Lefty" Driesell's Georgia State Panthers at the Mississippi Coliseum. Tickets are available at $12 apiece through the Mississippi Coliseum Box Office (601-355-5252) as well as through all TicketMaster outlets.

Don Foster, a veteran newspaper writer who is the Sports Editor for the Starkville Daily News, writes a weekly article for Gene's Page.

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