By Gene Phelps
NEW ORLEANS — When Dontae’ Jones walked into the Louisiana Superdome Friday afternoon and heard the noise of the Kentucky crowd, the adrenalin started pumping through his basketball body.
The dome. The noise. The No. 1-ranked Wildcats smoking Florida. Mississippi State’s small forward was pumped. So were his teammates.
“I thought, `Man, this is crazy,”’ said Jones, who scored 16 points, 14 in the first half, to help lead the No. 25 Bulldogs to a rare victory in the SEC Tournament — a 69-58 win over Auburn in the quarterfinals.
The victory gives the Bulldogs (20-7) their second straight 20-win season and sends them into the tournament semifinals for the first time in coach Richard Williams’ 10 seasons at the helm. The win upped Williams’ record to 2-9 in the SEC postseason. It was also State’s third of the year against Auburn.
“Everybody knows this is a big win for us if they’ve looked at our track record in the tournament,” State forward Whit Hughes said. “To beat a team like Auburn three times says something for us. We wanted to take advantage of being a first seed, and now we’re in the semifinals.”
Mississippi State will play either Georgia or Tennessee at 2:15 p.m. today. The Bulldogs beat them both in the regular season in Starkville — Georgia (76-73) and Tennessee (60-59).
As in the first two matchups, Auburn went to a box-and-one to stop Darryl Wilson and concentrated on keeping 6-foot-11 center Erick Dampier from getting a good look inside. It worked in the first half as Wilson scored only one point and Dampier two.
But Jones and point guard Marcus Bullard took up the slack, scoring 14 points apiece and 28 of the Bulldogs’ 31 first-half points.
“We knew they were going to drop everybody on Eric and play a box-and-one on Darryl,” Jones said. “Marcus and I just let the shots come to us.”
“Auburn was playing those gimmick defenses,” Bullard added. “Dontae’ and I knew we were going to have to step it up.”
Two bang-bang plays at the end of the first half by Bullard and Jones was typical of their first half. Bullard drove the lane for a layup with less than a second remaining to score and draw a foul. He missed his free throw, but a skying Jones was there for the tip-in to tie the score at 31-31 at the buzzer.
“In the first half, Marcus and Dontae’ made the baskets that kept us in the game,” Williams said.
Friday’s second half was mirror image of last week’s 67-51 win by State over Auburn.
Tied at 34-34 last week, State clamped down on defense and outscored the Tigers 33-17 in the final half. Friday, the Bulldogs turned up the defensive heat and outscored Auburn 38-27 in the final 20 minutes.
Auburn close the gap to 44-41 at the 13-minute mark, but State broke it open with a 12-0 run over the next five minutes to take a 56-41 lead.
“When Mississippi State got the lead they really picked things up defensively,” said Auburn coach Cliff Ellis, whose team shot only 28 percent in the second half. “They do a good good defensively.”
For State, Wilson scored 16 second-half points to finish with 17. Dampier had a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Auburn was led by center Pat Burke with 16 points.