Dogs Begin New Year Ranked No. 8 in Country

New Year's Eve finds the surprising Mississippi State hoopsters riding an eye-catching, nine-game win streak and ranked among the top 10 teams in the country.<P> No. 8 Mississippi State, enjoying its highest ranking since wrapping-up the 1995-96 campaign in the Final Four at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J., received one first place vote in The Associated Press college basketball poll released Monday.

The defending Southeastern Conference Tournament champions closed out the 2002 portion of their schedule on a roll. Mississippi State celebrated its top 10 ranking to begin the week with an exciting, 85-74, win over the pesky South Alabama Jaguars at the jam-packed Mitchell Center in Mobile, AL, a prelude hopefully, of things to come as far as the Maroon & White faithful are concerned.

Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury, closing in on the century mark with an impressive 88-51 overall record in only his fifth year at the helm in Starkville, has seen expectations soar with each triumph.

He said after Monday night's win over a "very good" South Alabama team, coached by former Kentucky great John Pelphrey, that he believes the Bulldogs are getting better.

"I don't think anybody knows how big a win this is because nobody knows just how good South Alabama is at this point," added Stansbury, who has seen the Dogs, in four years, secure a pair of NIT bids, land an NCAA Postseason berth and win the SEC Tournament.

"I was very proud of how our kids stepped it up against South Alabama, displaying a sense of urgency about them as they came out of the locker room at halftime," he said. "I thought, defensively, we took our energy to another level."

The outstanding backcourt duo of All-SEC senior guard Derrick Zimmerman and junior Timmy Bowers combined for 42 points with 21 big markers apiece against the Jaguars, who trailed by only one point, 36-35, at halftime.

The dynamic twosome collectively drilled 14-of-24 attempts from the floor, making 5-of-9 from behind the arc with Bowers hitting on 4-of-7 and "Z" hitting 1-of-2. They were 9-of-13 from the free throw line, had nine rebounds between them, 14 assists, six steals, and three blocks with a combined four turnovers.

"I thought our guards were terrific," acknowledged Stansbury. "Derrick (Zimmerman) and Timmy (Bowers) controlled the game offensively."

Mississippi State (9-1) moved into the top 10 on the heels of its nine-game win streak. The Dogs jumped eight spots after knocking off No. 5 Oklahoma, a Final Four team a year ago, 54-45, over the weekend in New Orleans.

Previously holding down the No. 16 spot in the AP, the Bulldogs have been moving up steadily in the polls after bouncing back from a season-opening, 79-76, loss to Louisiana-Lafayette while all-American candidate Mario Austin was being held out of action awaiting a decision by the NCAA on his eligibility.

Ranked No. 12 in the Preseason, the Dogs regrouped with veteran guards Zimmerman and Bowers leading the way until Austin was finally cleared to play before a key contest with then No. 11-ranked Xavier at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

The Dogs upset Xavier, 61-51, as Austin made his Broadway debut one to remember with 28 points and nine rebounds while MSU extended its winning streak to six. Coupled with the upset of the Sooners, the Dogs now have five straight wins over ranked teams.

Austin turned in another solid performance with 24 points and 10 rebounds as MSU turned back "Lefty" Driesell's Georgia State squad 78-54 at the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson, MS before taking on the Sooners.

Selected the SEC "Player of the Week" following his "big game" in the "Big Apple," Austin has scored in double figures in each of his four outings, including a 16-point, nine rebound game against the Jaguars (6-5).

Sophomore guard-forward Ontario Harper scored in double figures with 13 points on a sparkling night from the field, hitting 4-of-5, including a perfect 2-of-2 "3" pointers. Senior 6-10 forward Michal Ignerski had seven points and six rebounds before fouling out.

"Iggy" was all over the backboards especially in the second half," noted Stansbury.

"Ontario (Harper) played a great game. It was a great team victory," noted Stansbury, who also applauded the play of Winsome Frazier, especially for his defense.

Frazier also had five points. Junior transfer Branden Vincent gave the Dogs some quality minutes as did freshman guard Stephen Cowherd and sophomore center Marcus Campbell.

"Right now I don't think everybody knows how good South Alabama is, but as I told John (Pelphrey) before the game, and I told him after the game, 'I won't be a bit surprised if South Alabama wins their league or wins their tournament to get to the NCAA. I think they're that good."

Mississippi State will break in the New Year with its final game of the current road swing Thursday, Jan. 2 against UAB at Bartow Arena in Birmingham, AL.

"Now we'll take on a very good UAB (8-2) team," said Stansbury of the Bulldogs' imposing early-season slate. "When we roll into town there's going to be a huge bullseye on us.

"We need a great Bulldog crowd to show up in Birmingham," said Stansbury. "We need everybody over there Thursday night to help us find a way to hopefully get another road win."

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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