A Q&A with Phil Cunningham

A Q&A with Mississippi State assistant men's basketball coach Phil Cunningham.

The last six games this team really played well. Did you see it coming?
Phil Cunningham - "No, it was actually the other way around. We were terribly concern after the Auburn loss that this team was going to fall apart, maybe fold up. We had Florida coming in here, fighting for their NCAA life trying to get an at-large bid, then going to Oxford and playing at Ole Miss. And we were looking at trying to find a way to just get one more win. But these guys went the other way. They came together, they practiced hard that week. Then, winning over Florida at home gave us confidence. Then, going to Ole Miss and winning at Ole Miss. Those two things did two huge things. It certainly gave the team confidence, it gave them a lot of pride especially winning at Ole Miss. But to get that number 3 seed in the tournament and having an opportunity to open with Georgia was really huge for us.

"It's just amazing how in a two week period how a team can change, how they came together. They just played four straight days of only caring about winning. They've been like that for the last two weeks. Really, they have been that way for the entire year, but it really got highlighted by those two wins of the regular season then at the tournament."

Going into the tournament how did you, as coaches, feel about the team's chances?
"We felt very good because, as a coach, you put so much stock in how they practice. And we had three terrific days of practice. The first two days of practice before we went to Tampa were hard practices where they really got after it. We even had a couple of guys who got banged up and hurt a little bit which you never want to do before a tournament. But the guys were going hard and they felt good about going hard.

"So, we went down there knowing the team was ready to play. We didn't know we would play with this much energy and effort for four days, but we found a way to do so. And every win you saw the confidence growing in each one of them."

Why did you practice them so hard prior to the tournament?
"We didn't go long, we just went hard and got after it real good. To me, when a team works hard they feel better about themselves. And a lot of that had to do with their mindset coming into Monday. It was so good because their confidences was back after coming off those two wins. They were ready to go to work."

One of the teams you guys beat in the tournament was LSU, a team that defeated you twice during the season. What was the difference this time?
"Number 1, we wanted to play them. And we had the edge on them in terms of the mental side of it. They had beaten us twice and our guys felt like we had let them get away with one in double-overtime that we could have won in regulation and in the first overtime.

"Interestingly, I thought that our guys were in better condition for that game. (LSU) looked very tired. They had a very tough, physical game against Kentucky that had taken a lot out of them the day before. While we had also played two games, we were playing five players off the bench and they were, basically, only trying to play two."

Was there a revenge factor in the games against Tennessee?
"Our guys knew what was on the line. It wasn't anything to do with revenge. There were a couple of guys who had a little extra juice in them in Jarvis (Varnado) and Barry (Stewart) because they are from Tennessee. But just to have the chance to go to the NCAA Tournament was enough by itself. And we knew we had to win to do that. The guys were very excited going into the game."

What was going through your mind during the last 9.6 seconds of the championship game?
"We were just trying to stay focused. There wasn't a lot you could tell the team. Oddly enough, Tennessee got the ball in a situation where they are probably the best team in the SEC and one of the best in the country at executing - the out of bounds play underneath the basket. They probably have about eight plays, so as far as remembering what they are going to run that is just hard to do. It is basically on instinct and sound principals. And the way the thing kept going back and forth it was like nobody wanted to have the ball. We don't want it, you take it. No, you take it back. And the officials were confused about the time. And on top of that we get fouled and our free throw shooter has to stand there for 3 or 4 minutes for them to figure out the time on the clock. But Phil Turner got up there and knocked both down."

Gene Swindoll is the publisher of the GenesPage.com website, the source for Mississippi State sports on Scout.com sports network. You can contact him by emailing swindoll@genespage.com.

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