Defending champion Bulldogs end Tigers improbable run 76-61.
By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 16, 2003
NEW ORLEANS -- Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury's elation lasted about 10 minutes before reality set in -- sort of.
His Bulldogs had just ended LSU's improbable run in the SEC tournament with a 76-61 victory in Saturday's semifinals and Stansbury's thoughts quickly turned to his next opponent: Kentucky.
Problem was, Kentucky hadn't even played yet.
"The downside is we've got to play Kentucky, I mean the winner of the Kentucky-Auburn game," said Stansbury, who earned his 100th career win. "I'm getting a little ahead of myself.
The Bulldogs (21-8) will play No. 2-ranked Kentucky (27-3) at 1 today for championship.
After knocking off the seventh-ranked Gators in Friday's quarterfinals, LSU ran into a Mississippi State team intent on defending its tournament title. The loss ended a seven-game winning streak for LSU, which entered the tournament on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament, but most likely earned its way in with wins over Arkansas and Florida.
"I thought LSU was playing as well, if not better than anybody in the league or the nation," Stansbury said. "For our team to come into their home atmosphere is a terrific win. I just think our team was the toughest one out on the court."
At least for the majority of the game, which closely mirrored the way LSU beat Florida on Friday. While the Gators played zone on the Tigers early, MSU put on the fullcourt press from the start, causing LSU problems.
The Tigers committed seven turnovers in the first nine minutes as Mississippi State took a 26-12 lead with 8:03 left. But LSU fought back, putting together a 16-4 run to trail 34-32 at halftime.
"We had them down early and we let up and let them come back on us," said guard Timmy Bowers, who had a game-high 26 points. "I wasn't really focused on the offense (in the second half), I was focused on letting our defense take care of our offense."
Leading 45-42 early in the second half, Mississippi State went on an 8-0 run. LSU forward Jaime Lloreda picked up his third foul with 5:51 left in the first half and played less than 10 minutes of the half. Senior guard Ronald Dupree, who led all scorers with 24 against Florida, scored just nine.
The last time Kentucky and MSU met, the Bulldogs fell behind early then pulled to within five late in the game, but couldn't get it down to one possession. Mississippi State is confident it can play with the Wildcats.
"We know if we went there at their place and played them well, we have a chance to do so here," center Mario Austin said.