LEXINGTON, Ky. Dontae’ Jones used to spend his afternoons as a child playing basketball in the backyard of his housing project in Nashville, shooting at an imaginary goal his mother’s clothesline pole.
Sunday afternoon at the University of Kentucky’s Rupp Arena, the goals and baskets were real, and Jones was filling them up.
When his day was finished he had scored 23 points to lead No. 19 Mississippi State to a 73-63 victory over No. 7 Cincinnati in the NCAA’s Southeast Regional championship game and to the school’s first berth in the Final Four.
“It was a big win for the program and team,” said a smiling Jones, who was named the regional’s MVP by a unanimous vote. “It really means a lot to us. It hasn’t really sunk in.”
The win sends the Bulldogs (26-7) to the Meadowlands Arena in East Rutherford, N.J., for the NCAA Tournament’s finals and semifinals, a.k.a., the Final Four. They’ll play West Regional champion Syracuse (28-8) at 4:42 p.m. CST Saturday. The Orangemen defeated Kansas 60-57 Sunday to earn their berth.
Massachusetts and Kentucky play in the other semifinal, with the winners playing Monday, April 1, at 8:22 p.m. CST for the national championship of college basketball.
As they’ve done many times in the postseason, the Bulldogs came out smoking from the opening tip, pushing the ball down the floor against the flat-footed Bearcats. And of course, Jones had the hottest hand.
He gave MSU a 5-0 lead, nailing a short jumper and a 3-pointer from the right wing. And he didn’t cool down. During the next six minutes, he hit 6-of-7 field goals none of them dunks to help his team stake an 18-10 lead.
“The ball was feeling good coming off my hands,” Jones said. “When they start falling for me, I usually keep shooting. It pumped the team up and we went on a little run.”
Cincinnati, the bruising monster from Conference USA, never recovered.
Jones finished the first half with 17 points, hitting 7-of-11 from the field, including two 3-pointers. The Bulldogs took a 37-29 lead into the dressing room at halftime.
MSU shot 56 percent for the half while Cincinnati shot 36 percent in the first half and a season-low 33.8 percent for the game.
Early in the second half, the Bearcats made a brief run at the Bulldogs, cutting their lead to 41-38 with 15:15 left on a fastbreak layup by All-America forward Danny Fortson.
But MSU answered with a 13-3 run over the next seven minutes to charge ahead 54-41. Point guard Marcus Bullard scored six points in the spurt, hitting a 3-pointer and scoring on a 3-point play. Bullard, who was playing with a strained ligament in his right elbow, finished with 11 points.
Another star for MSU during the run was freshman center Tyrone Washington, who scored a basket, hit a foul shot and blocked a shot attempt by Fortson while subbing for All-SEC center Erick Dampier. The Bulldogs’ big man was sidelined with four fouls at the 11:26 mark and didn’t return until 4:03 remained.
“Coach (Richard) Williams just told me to go out there and play,” said Washington, who was 3-of-4 from the field, scored seven points and had four rebounds. “When he said that my eyes lit up.”
Down the stretch, senior guard Darryl Wilson drove the biggest nail in the Bearcats’ coffin, sinking an NBA-range 3-pointer from the top of the key to give MSU its biggest lead, 63-47, with 4:25 remaining. For Wilson, who scored 27 points and sank seven 3-pointers in Friday’s 60-55 semifinal win over Connecticut, it was his only trey. He finished with 16 points.
Cincinnati never got any closer than eight points in the final four minutes.
Fortson paced the Bearcats with 24 points and 13 rebounds. Darnell Burton added 17 points and Keith LeGree scored 11. The team’s second-leading scorer, forward Damon Flint, was held to 1-of-11 shooting and two points.
“Everybody came to play. It was a total team effort,” said MSU’s Jones. “The bench stepped it up. That’s what we needed today, 40 minutes of great basketball and our dreams are coming true.”
Especially the dreams of a young man from Nashville.