‘They showed why they were the best team in the league," MSU Coach Rick Stansbury said. "And they are the best team in the league." His Bulldogs slipped two losses back of the Tigers at 6-3, and are now 16-8 overall.
"It was two good teams but somebody had to lose it," said Tiger Coach Trent Johnson. "Two teams out there really competing hard, getting after. We were fortunate enough to make some plays at crucial times down the stretch. It's a good win for us." Particularly because now his team has a two-game lead on the entire SEC pack.
It would have been very much otherwise if not for Mitchell's heroics all evening and most notably in the magnified final minute. The Bulldogs, who were struggling uncharacteristically from their own arcs, got a three-point goal by Dee Bost for a 93-93 tie at 52.7 seconds of the second overtime. Every one of the 9,021 in the house knew what was coming, or rather who would have the ball in hands and game on shoulders. "He was going to turn right, dribble right on us," said Stanbury.
That didn't stop Mitchell from overpowering MSU freshman forward Romero Osby for a layup, foul, and three-point play at 39 ticks. "He went through us," Stansbury shrugged. "Give him credit, he went through us before that, too." Tiger reserve guard Alex Farrer only made one of two free shots at 0:24.1 but it was crucial as Osby converted once himself a dozen seconds later. Because when LSU backup guard Chris Bass didn't make either free chance at eight seconds State had no choice but go long, and with a hand in his face guard Phil Turner's try to tie was wide.
Mitchell's 41 made for the first 40-point effort by a Tiger in 14 years, as he was 12-of-15 shooting and 15-of-18 on free throws with a team-best 11 rebounds. "He's just a smart player, he knows how to use his body and score," said State center Jarvis Varnado. "I think right now he's SEC Player of the Year." LSU guard Marcus Thornton, who torched the Dogs for 31 in Baton Rouge, had a quiet night by comparison with 19 points while guard Bo Spencer mustered 15 markers despite a second half ankle problem. The two backcourters had six of LSU's ten treys between them.
If not for Mitchell the night would have belonged to Varnado, who posted a career-high 31 points himself. "It doesn't mean anything. If I have zero points and we win, I love that." Bost scored 20 points and backcourt partner Barry Stewart ten, but they were a combined 5-of-30 from the field and 2-of-11 at the arc. Meanwhile top outside shooter Ravern Johnson mustered just five points and Phil Turner four. Taking away Varnado's 10-of-18 shooting, his team was 14-of-59 from the field; and even with him State shot just 31%; 5-of-24 at the arc.
Yet for all the missed shot and missed chances, the Bulldogs were twice a shot away from ‘stealing' a home win in regulation and first-OT. "I never felt like Mississippi State lost confidence," Coach Johnson said. For that matter the Dogs could have won this one at the foul stripe where they took 52 trips and scored 41 points; compared to 27-of-39 free throwing by the visitors.
"Officiating didn't beat us, I can promise you that," said Stansbury, who earned a technical at the end of overtime protesting what he saw as a non-call.
For an evening that produced such huge numbers, things began at a crawl with State missing their first six shots and not taking a lead until Bost hit a three. That was the first of seven such swaps over the next five minutes, until Mitchell hit from out top and the Tigers went ahead 19-18. Stansbury had used his bench in that stretch with reasonable good effect, but when the starters returned the Tigers pounced for a backdoor layup. And after a LSU turnover the Dogs got too fancy as Bost passed on a layup, literally, and Turner clanked his dunk.
Down 25-18 after Mitchell hit his only other three, State looked in trouble as Varnado got his third personal foul. Backup post Brian Johnson rose to the opportunity with a hook shot and free throw, while the Tigers began missing from outside. Fortunately for the Dogs the visitors were careless with the ball and LSU led just 31-26 at halftime, with 15 points already for Mitchell.
"I knew it was the gameplan coming in," Varnado said. "We guarded them well, they just hit some big shots." State's center asserted himself more to open the next half, matching goal-for-goal with Mitchell before powering for a three-point play. At the same time Bost was beating the Tigers in transition, twice, and not settling for outside attempts. "The first half my shot was kind of off, so Coach told me to go to the rim. The second half I got to the rim."
Bost almost changed the whole game, maybe the SEC season, when after picking Spencer's pocket he drew a foul and his counterpart landed badly, having to be helped off court at 12:22. Fifty seconds later free throws by Bost and Turner tied it up 48-all, but Spencer limped back into action and made free shots of his own. And when State dropped into a zone, he stuck a brave trey.
"He was hurt, and he knocked down a three," Coach Johnson said. "He's a big-time competitor."
Still State was able to even things up repeatedly, even after—shades of things to come—Mitchell muscles for a three-point play and 72-69 lead. Bost chopped a pair off that with free throws, then Varnado fouled C.Johnson out at 14.8. Except only his first free shot went, leaving it tied. LSU got downcourt and Garrett Temple had a layup, which came back. With 2.8 showing on the clock the Tigers made Varnado take the inbounds pass and force a half-court heave that hit the shot clock. That was when Stansbury earned his technical, meaning LSU oddly opened overtime with a lead as Thornton hit just one of two tries.
But that single point loomed large five minutes later. Because it meant the only Bulldog basket of the first OT merely tied the tally at 82-82. Both sides had series to avoid double-overtime, but LSU's Storm Warren—the sub-center—was caught travelling and Bost's brilliant drive ended with a rim-out. "I should have finished it, I guess I shot a little too hard thinking of the help-side defense."
In the last extra period Bulldog backup guard Riley Benock provided a brief 85-84 lead but on the other end Warren converted a three-point play, then two more free throws before he also fouled-out. State's own #3 postman Elgin Bailey knocked down four free throws in six seconds to get his squad within a longball, which Bost delivered at 0:52.7 to set up the final drama and trauma.
"It was real frustrating," said Varnado. "I wanted to win so bad, we just came up short."
Ironically, the Dogs were just short in the rebound battle. After being whipped at Baton Rouge by 20 boards, the final margin this time was 52-50. And when the Tigers focused on defending the perimeter, Varnado took advantage of his one-on-one matchups with a series of overmatched defenders. Most remarkably, against an excellent defensive squad the Dogs had just 11 total turnovers.
"I don't know what more you could ask of a team," said Stansbury. "I'm disappointed we didn't win, but it sure wasn't lack of effort. We battled the best team in this league and we proved we're right there." Yet even this came with a cost, because State's best wasn't quite enough and the coach now has to get them ready for a road trip to Auburn. "We have to bounce back. Because we left our hearts and souls and guts on the floor tonight."
Then again, MSU might not lack for motivation Saturday according to Brian Johnson. "We're going to get a W," he said leaving the press room. "Because I'm real sick right now."