By Gene Phelps
INDIANAPOLIS In this land of high-powered Indy cars, Mississippi State’s basketball team played like Al Bundy’s Dodge.
Still, Mississippi State limped home on the final lap to take the checkered flag, beating scrappy Virginia Commonwealth 58-51 in the opening round of the NCAA Southeast Regional at the RCA Dome.
“I don’t think it was the prettiest win that we’ve ever been involved with, but we’ll certainly take it,” MSU coach Richard Williams said. “When you get to this level this time of year, you’re not worried about how pretty it is. It’s not a beauty contest.”
The Bulldogs (23-7) advance to Saturday’s second round where they’ll play the UCLA-Princeton winner at approximately 7:30 p.m. CST.
Williams admitted that his team had left some of its game in New Orleans, where it upset top-ranked Kentucky 84-73 in the SEC Tournament championship game.
“It was mentally hard to get back to the level we were Saturday,” he said.
Mississippi State got a big lift on its final laps from senior guard Darryl Wilson. He was held to two points in the first half, but scored 12 of State’s final 16 points in the last seven minutes. One of his two 3-point bombs, which came from the top of the key, gave the Bulldogs a 54-48 lead with 2 minutes, 9 seconds remaining.
“I was a little concerned that he (Wilson) was afraid to shoot in the first half,” Williams said. “He started playing well when the game was on the line.”
VCU chopped MSU’s lead to 54-51 with 1:49 left on a 3-pointer by Ivan Chappell.
A turnover by Wilson on an inbounds pass from point guard Marcus Bullard with 26 seconds left gave VCU a chance to tie. But Wilson made up for his miscue, reaching in and slapping the ball away from Chappell and into the hands of Whit Hughes.
Hughes, who has been battling a sinus infection, sank both ends of the one-and-one to give the Bulldogs a 56-51 lead with 11 ticks left.
“We were just worried about contesting their 3-point shot,” Hughes said. “I was in the right place at the right time, just lucky. The free throws gave me the opportunity to make up for some things I hadn’t done.”
VCU (24-9) had gone ahead 46-45 with 6:07 left on a layup by power forward Bernard Hopkins, who led his team with 22 points and 11 rebounds.
But MSU answered with a pair of Wilson buckets, one off an offensive rebound, and a short jumper by center Erick Dampier.
The Bulldogs’ big man spent 14 minutes on the bench in foul trouble. He picked up his fourth foul with 13:20 remaining. He scored three of MSU’s first five baskets in the second half to help the Bulldogs build a 34-25 lead. MSU led 24-20 at halftime.
With Dampier out, VCU started pounding inside with some success and tied the score at 42-42 on a layup by Hopkins.
“They were killing us on the boards in the stretch where they (VCU) made the run,” Williams said.
For MSU, Wilson had 15, Dampier 13 and Dontae’ Jones 13 points and a team-high 10 rebounds. Chappell scored 10 for VCU.
The first half was an ugly one, as MSU shot 31 percent and VCU hit for only 21.9 percent. The Rams went through one stretch where they missed 11 straight shots.