TAMPA, Fla. (AP)—Rick Stansbury laid out Mississippi State’s case for a spot in the NCAA tournament.
The surging team’s resume includes nine wins in the Southeastern Conference during the regular season, three more in the SEC tournament and a 7-1 record against the league’s Eastern Division.
The coach stopped short of saying the Bulldogs have already played their way into a NCAA appearance, however they’ll get a chance to ensure it themselves after upsetting No. 20 LSU 67-57 Saturday to advance to Sunday’s SEC title game against Tennessee (21-11).
“I learned a long time ago for me to worry about things I can’t control is an absolute waste of energy,” Stansbury said before detailing why the Bulldogs (22-12) have a strong argument for being in regardless of what happens in the final.
Tennessee and LSU are locks to be in the 65-team field, and Auburn has a good chance to make it, too.
“That’s what our focus is,” Stansbury said of the final, adding that two of his team’s seven league losses were in double overtime and the Bulldogs were 4-4 on the road in conference before reeling off three neutral-site victories in Tampa.
“If you start breaking that down, who becomes the third and fourth teams to get in?. You guys make the case—as long as you make the right one,” Stansbury said.
Jarvis Varnado scored 19 points and Barry Stewart added 17 for the Bulldogs, who began the week needing to win two or three times to improve their chances.
LSU (26-7) beat Mississippi State twice during the regular season, but were not match this time with SEC Player of the Year Marcus Thornton scoring 14 on 5-for-19 shooting and the Tigers shooting 31 percent overall.
The victory was the fifth straight for Mississippi State. LSU has lost three of four since clinching the SEC regular-season title.
“I think the team’s confidence is very high right now,” Stewart said. “Wins cure all things.”
A day after scoring 21 to lead LSU past Kentucky in the quarterfinals, Thornton was 0-for-6 on 3-point attempts. The Tigers misfired on 12 of 16 attempts from behind the arc as a team, giving Mississippi State a reprieve from its own poor shooting.
The Bulldogs, the league’s best 3-point shooting team, were 3-for-16 and shot 33.3 percent overall.
Varnado had his way inside, though, making 7-for-13, grabbing seven rebounds and blocking seven shots to break the SEC single-season block record he shared with Shaquille O’Neal. The 6-foot-9 junior from Brownsville, Tenn., has 159— two more than he had a year ago.
The Bulldogs used a late 12-1 run to put the game out of reach, but might not have needed that if Varnado had been better from the foul line. He was 5-of-12, although Stewart took up the slack by going 10-of-12.
While no one really dominated the SEC this season, LSU has been the league’s best team all season. The Tigers won both previous matchups against Mississippi State, trouncing the Bulldogs 81-57 in Baton Rouge on Jan. 21 and prevailing 97-94 in double overtime in Starkville on Feb. 11.
“I don’t think they did anything different,” LSU’s Tasmin Mitchell said. “We just weren’t making shots.”
LSU won 10 straight before losing to Vanderbilt and Auburn the final week of the regular season, then began the SEC tournament with an impressive performance against Kentucky in the quarterfinals.
The Tigers weren’t nearly as sharp against Mississippi State, but the Bulldogs probably had as much to do with that as anything.
With Thornton going 3-for-10, LSU shot 35.3 percent from the field in the opening half. Mississippi State was only slightly better at at 35.7 percent, but got 13 points from Varnado and led 31-29 at the break.
LSU trailed 51-46 after Thornton made a free throw with six minutes to go, and that was as close as the Tigers would get down the stretch. Varnado began Mississippi State’s 12-1 run with a layup and Stewart finished it with four free throws that made 63-47.
Mitchell led LSU with 15 points. But like Thornton, he was less effective against the Bulldogs after scoring 24 and 41 during the regular season. The 6-foot-7 forward made 7 of 18 shots, but only got to the free-throw line once.
Mississippi State shot 35 free throws to LSU’s 13 and outscored the Tigers 24-9 from the line.
“As hard as it is for me to say it, that’s not what beat us,” LSU coach Trent Johnson said of his team being whistled for twice as many fouls (26) as the Bulldogs. “What beat us is our inability to execute and Mississippi State’s ability to make plays.”