State Loses Game And Ground To Tigers 76-58

Whatever the situation, Phil Turner can find something to say about it. But even this most voluble of Bulldogs struggled to summarize Mississippi State's 76-58 loss to Auburn Saturday evening. "Just not much you can say," the guard shrugged. "I'm never too much lost for words, but I don't know what to tell you."

Indeed the most telling commentaries could be read right off the scoreboard, and in the SEC standings. By knocking off the Bulldogs a second time in two weekends, Auburn (19-10, 8-6 SEC) strengthened their grip on second place in the Western Division and improved the post-season position. Mississippi State, which came into the night technically tied for #2 in the West, fell a full game behind at 7-7 as well as lost any sort of tie-break. The Dogs also slipped to 17-12 overall with their fifth loss in six games.

Turner's teammates also had trouble explaining the evening, given what had been at stake. "We came out flat and I don't understand why," said guard Barry Stewart. "At this point of the season when you've got to have some urgency about you."

"I didn't see it coming," admitted Coach Rick Stansbury. "I thought our team had prepared well and were excited about playing. But it turned out Auburn was much more excited about playing."

Excited, and successful. Auburn not only made a strong late-schedule statement for this year but scored their first win in Humphrey Coliseum, and sweep of the season series with State, since 2000. Now the Tigers have the inside track on a first-day bye at the SEC Tournament, which no one could or would have forecast coming into the campaign.

"This was just a big one for us," Tiger Coach Jeff Lebo said. "I told our team you've played your way into a situation where every game in meaningful. And it was a great one for the seniors who've never won a game here."

"It's pretty big," said Tiger guard Lucas Hargrove. "Because we've always been at the bottom on the SEC and it means a lot to me because now we're playing for postseason hopes."

Hargrove and the Tiger bench might have been the biggest reasons Auburn out-played anything State attempted this evening. Though only three backups got on the floor, they combined for 36 points on collective 15-of-22 shooting. By painful and obvious contrast, none of the six Bulldog subs who saw the court scored a single marker in their 35 combined minutes.

"I have no answer for that," Stansbury offered. Nor could he explain how under the circumstances his team could have been so flat once the ball was tipped. "I wish I did. It was a team thing."

"The effort wasn't there, at all," said center Jarvis Varnado. Though the junior certainly did work hard enough to score 14 points with nine rebounds, both Bulldog team-highs. His problem was getting enough high-percentage chances to score against Auburn's expected but still-effective defensive approach. "They came at me with doubles, I tried to kick it out to my shooters. We weren't hitting shots tonight."

Or not enough. State hit a sad 27% of first-half attempts, and just two of 11 tries at the arc. While the Dogs did ultimately knock down as many treys as the Tigers, getting their nine took 30 tries while Auburn needed just 17 attempts at the arc for the same results. And seven of those three-balls came in the first half where the tone was truly set.

"When you don't make shots it makes it more difficult," Stansbury said. "Particularly when the other team is making shots."

Though to be accurate, at first both squads were bidding for Masonic membership with all the bricks going up. The first Auburn basket, then State's initial two scores, all came on putbacks, as the Dogs went up 7-2. Tiger guard Rasheem Barrett changed things by hitting the day's first trey and a shorter jumper, before guard Tay Waller—who had torched State at Auburn two weeks ago—struck for three. When backups Hargrove and Brendan Knox got involved in the offensive act, Stansbury knew his squad was in trouble.

"Whatever steam we had built up in us, that was over. I remember Ravern (Johnson) missing a dunk, Romero (Osby) missed a layup, and we had about four turnovers in that stretch. And things went good for them, they got that separation."

Auburn's superior energy showed as Knox missed a free throw that would have completed a three-point play, only to have Sullivan snare the rebound and hit for three himself. Next time down Barrett found himself at least four strides open from any defender and hit the long shot, drawing an angry timeout talk from Stansbury. The halftime conversation wasn't any more pleasant with a 38-21 scoreboard.

"When you get down 17 the first half it's a dog-fight trying to get out of it," said Turner. The Dogs did show sufficient fight though to chop their deficit to 40-31 as Johnson and Turner each hit from the arc in a 10-0 burst. It was their chance, or chances, as Johnson then guard Dee Bost both had open looks from outside on the same possession. Each missed, and Auburn stemmed the surge with a Knox dunk.

The true backbreaker though came after Hargrove missed both free chances. The second, live carom came on out to Sullivan who reprised his first-half act with an open threefer. There were eleven minutes left to play but the outcome was inevitable.

"When we got down I felt like we gave up," said Varnado. Even after Stewart, who had arrived back in town only an hour before tipoff from his grandmother's funeral, buried a couple of long shots, the Tigers had answers. Hargrove looped around Varnado for one bucket, then somehow pulled down a too-high pass and jammed it in one dramatic motion. The Tigers would lead by as 60-40 and State never get closer than eleven points. Even as the Dogs sent the SEC's poorest foul shooters to the line, Auburn made enough of those to maintain a healthy cushion.

Sullivan topped the Tigers with 14 points, nine of that on treys; while Hargrove added a dozen and Knox ten to complete bench contributions. Barrett led the starters with his 12 points. Bost and Turner each had a dozen points of their own and Stewart 10. And while the Dogs were more accurate in the second half the overall shooting came out at just 35%, while Auburn was a make away from breaking-even.

Which is why the Tigers, and not State, have a leg-up on second in the West going into the final week of the schedule. "I'm awfully proud of my team," said Lebo. "We were pretty sound defensively, and we knew whoever was going to make shots would be the one that won it. Both teams are very similar in how they play, and the one thing we did was take the ball to the basket when we needed to. And they didn't shoot the ball very well at all."

Stansbury couldn't dispute any of that assessment, though it wasn't the technical issues that concerned him. "They played like it meant more to them than it did to us," he said. The home crowd picked up on this as well, and of those who did not leave before the final horn a few hung around to send boos at the Bulldogs. Varnado called this frustrating, too.

Turner was more vocal on this score. "That's disappointing coming from your fans. But like Coach says all the time, the people inside—the team and coaches—we are the only people that believe we can win anyway. Everybody else just hopes we can win."

State has two more chances to win next week, hosting Florida on Wednesday evening before travelling to Ole Miss on Saturday. Meanwhile the Tigers are at rival Alabama in the midweek and host LSU to end their slate. So that second-slot in the Division and tournament bye—not to mention priceless post-season points—remain in play in the next seven days.

"It's still a lot of basketball left to play," said Turner. "We still feel we can make it."

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