TAMPA, Fla. — Mississippi State showed all those bubble teams from the Southeastern Conference how to get into the NCAA tournament.
Phil Turner scored seven of his 12 points in the final 1:35 Sunday, and the Bulldogs knocked off Tennessee 64-61 to win the SEC tournament championship and the league’s automatic NCAA berth.
Turner, who had 10 rebounds, hit a big 3-pointer to put Mississippi State (23-12) in front for good, then made two free throws with 8 seconds left to help the Bulldogs hold off the Volunteers (21-12) in a wild finish.
Cameron Tatum’s long 3-pointer bounced off the rim and Mississippi State’s Barry Stewart rebounded as time ran out on Tennessee’s hopes of winning the tournament for the first time in 30 years.
Wayne Chism led the Volunteers with 15 points, but he missed seven of nine 3-points attempts a day after going 4-of-6 to key a victory over Auburn in the semifinals. J.P Prince had 14 points and leading scorer Tyler Smith had 12 on 2-of-14 shooting.
The victory was the sixth straight for Mississippi State, which entered the tournament needing a strong run to improve its chances of making the NCAA field. The Bulldogs’ first SEC title since 2002 ensures the league at least three spots, with Tennessee and regular-season champion LSU considered locks.
Auburn, South Carolina and Florida all entered the tournament trying to improve their postseason resume.
Mississippi State’s run was reminiscent of Georgia’s stunning march through the SEC tournament last year. Georgia won four games in three days to earn an improbable NCAA berth after finishing last in the regular-season conference standings.
Stewart and Ravern Johnson both scored 11 points for Mississippi State, which also got 10 points, seven rebounds and six blocks from tournament MVP Jarvis Varnado. The Bulldogs held Tennessee to 29 percent shooting and forced two of the Volunteers’ 14 turnovers with the game on the line.
Prince made one of two free throws to cut Tennessee’s deficit to 62-61 and the Vols got a break when the rebound went out of bounds off Varnado with 9.6 seconds left. But Smith was unable to inbound ball, leading to a 5-second call that gave the ball to Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs turned it right back when Dee Bost took the inbound pass and dribbled out of bounds, giving Tennessee another chance that the Vols squandered when Stewart tipped an inbound pass that landed in Turner’s hands.
Tennessee immediately fouled the sophomore guard, who made both free throws. The celebration started a short time later.
The Bulldogs piled onto Stewart and Turner in front of the Tennessee bench, then slipped on championship shirts and hats and started dancing all over the court. Twany Beckham grabbed an SEC placard and raised it above his head and Brian Johnson directed the pep band through a chorus of the school fight song.
Mississippi State accepted the championship trophy, landed Varnado and Stewart on the all-tournament team, and cut down the nets in the half-empty St. Pete Times Forum, which drew a crowd of just 10,093 for the final.
Overall, the tournament drew 132,181 for six sessions over four days — the lowest attendance for the league’s showcase event since 1991, when it was played in Nashville, Tenn., and without perennial SEC powerhouse Kentucky, which was on probation.
For Tennessee, it was more postseason disappointment under coach Bruce Pearl, who had hoped winning the crown would improve his team’s seeding in the NCAA tournament. The Vols hadn’t been in the SEC final since 1991 and hadn’t won it all since 1979.
The Associated Press