Dogs Top Vandy 62-52 For SEC Finals Berth

As an old hound, Barry Stewart doesn't over-analyze why it takes the SEC Tournament to bring out the best in the Bulldogs. "When our backs are against the wall we're at our best," he shrugged, after a 62-52 victory over Vanderbilt. "I guess that's a good thing." A very good thing indeed, sending Mississippi State to another finals appearance.

Mississippi State advanced to the championship round of the SEC Tournament for a second-straight year by knocking off the Commodores in Saturday's semifinal round. The Bulldogs (23-10) earned a 2010 title shot against Kentucky (31-2) who crushed Tennessee 74-45 in the first semifinal. They will meet in a 2:00 Sunday showdown of West and East Division champs. And while the regular-season titleist Wildcats are playing for the top overall national seed, Mississippi State is still in the position of playing to win the corresponding automatic NCAA berth, just in case.

Bids, bubbles, brackets..."We're really not thinking about it right now," said guard Phil Turner. "We hope we are (in), but we know what we have to do to guarantee us a bid in the tournament. That's win tomorrow."

The Dogs have a tomorrow, and now hopefully a next week as well, after taking care of the Commodores. Unlike their Friday win over Florida where shooting set State's tone, this matchup was won by Bulldog defense. Unlike the regular-season meeting won by the home team in Memorial Gym, the ‘Dores found State a much tougher proposition in the Bridgestone Arena.

"I thought our team defensively did some things about as well as you could do it," Coach Rick Stansbury said. Things such as shacking a frontcourt that dominated that prior game to eight combined points, only two of them by postman A.J. Ogilvy. Or allowing just 35% shooting by one of the SEC's most efficient offenses. Or, battling them to a draw on the backboards.

Commodore frustration carried over to a most unusual area, too; they were only 10-of-17 at the free throw line. "And today we shot more free throws than they did," Stansbury practically crowed. For their part the Bulldogs were not brilliant offensively either at 39% shooting overall and 6-of-22 work at the three-point line. This proved sufficient with four Dogs in double-digits led by Stewart's 14 points. Only guard Jermaine Beal got into doubles for Vanderbilt with 11 points by sharp contrast, and that was matched by MSU's Turner off the bench.

Center Jarvis Varnado also scored 11 for State, but it was other areas where the senior proved literally central to the outcome. His work on Ogilvy did more than anything to throw the ‘Dores off their usual stride inside the paint. It was only fitting that in the waning minutes as Vanderbilt tried to rally Varnado rose to the occasion at opposite ends; first stuffing Ogilvy before the ball left the hand, then dunking in the other goal as part of a decisive three-point play.

"A.J. is a load inside," Varnado said. "I had to just mix it up. He was trying to get into my body so when he was driving I backed off and he kind of stumbled and got travel calls." Or missed forced shots, or had them rejected. Ogilvy, who had first-half foul problems, played just 21 minutes total and missed all four official shots. Varnado was 3-of-5 with nine rebounds and five free throws to go with six blocks.

After blitzing Florida from the tip with hot shooting, State was equally cold opening this contest with five fruitless series. Fortunately the ‘Dores were little better and only had five points when the Dogs finally got on the board with a Varnado layup. But even before Ogilvy had to go to the bench with a second foul it was clear he was completely out of synch; so much so Vanderbilt put Festus Ezeli in. The big backup did respond with six power-points and a 11-8 Vandy lead.

Cue Turner, who had gone scoreless on Friday. With Vanderbilt backed-off he hammered consecutive threes, then slashed in for a glasser and eight-straight points. "Phil brought a lot of emotional energy day. Plus he jumped up and made shots," Stansbury said.

With State leading 25-22 at 6:25 both offenses fell apart, combining for seven not-really-forced turnovers and half as many misses. Not until Stewart went to the stripe at 2:52 did either side get another point…and suddenly the Bulldogs were scoring a few more with a Dee Bost strike for three. The Commodores needed bombs from John Jenkins and Beal to trail only 33-27 at the half.

Ogilvy opened the new period with a couple of free throws but that didn't begin to offset another State assault. Stewart got a friendly role, Bost hit another three, and forward Kodi Augustus dropped consecutive jumpers for a 44-29 margin and Vanderbilt timeout. Talking didn't help as the Commodores wasted possessions on unproductive drives into traffic for misses and turnovers.

Of course State's offensive strength had a down-side as a stretch of unnecessary arc-attempts were missed and offered a reprieve. Vanderbilt made use of it with Jeffrey Taylor and Brad Tinsley combining for seven points, and when Jenkins and Tinsley struck for threes it suddenly was a 51-48 contest with 5:35 still to run.

That was as close as things would get though because Ravern Johnson whipped past the VU press for a running layup, State's first basket in over five minutes. Vanderbilt's charge faded on missed free throws and fumbles, while Stewart leeched onto Jenkins and made other ‘Dores take the long shots. Having got to 49 points Vanderbilt stuck there for four whole minutes while the Bulldogs put it away with Stewart freebies and Varnado's three-point play at 1:01.

"We made plays when we had to make plays," said Stansbury. "We had only nine turnovers and we rebounded even with a physical team."

"Coming in we knew what we had in front of us, so we put it together and played as a team," Bost said. Which means the Bulldogs live to play another day, against a foe they faced back on February 16 and lost to in overtime. Yes, they were keeping up with Kentucky's semifinal from the locker room. "I kept sliding out and watching some of the games," admitted Bost.

"Now we can turn all our focus to Kentucky," said Stansbury.

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