Big game from freshman helps ’Dogs top UGA

TAMPA, Fla. – Kodi Augustus is reaching new heights, and he’s bringing Mississippi State with him.

After providing a big spark off the bench the previous two games, Augustus was the star of the Bulldogs’ 79-60 win over Georgia in the first round of the SEC Tournament on Thursday.

In front of 11,071 at St. Pete Times Forum, the sophomore forward scored a career-high and game-high 19 points in 17 minutes as MSU (20-12) posted its largest-ever margin of victory in and SEC tourney game.

It was the third straight win for State, the Western Division No. 3 seed. The Bulldogs face East No. 2 seed South Carolina (21-8) at 2:15 p.m. today in the second round. State won the regular-season meeting in Starkville, 75-70.

Augustus has now scored 41 points over his last three games on 14-of-23 shooting. Against Georgia (12-20), he was 6 of 9 from the floor, 3 of 4 from 3-point range and 4 of 4 from the free throw line.

Georgia was aware of what the 6-foot-8 Augustus could do, but they didn’t see that coming.

“I didn’t think he was going to be as good as he was,” Georgia forward Terrance Woodbury said. “If he keeps up his aggressiveness as far as what he did against us, they pretty much have the talent to beat anybody.”

With Augustus subbing in at the four spot for 6-3 Phil Turner, it makes MSU a different team. A bigger team. A better team.

“He has the ability to pass it, and at his size to put it on the floor, drive the basketball to the paint. Which means now we don’t have to depend on that 3-point shot as much,” MSU coach Rick Stansbury sad. “And that’s one thing that’s shown these last three games.”

State can still shoot the long ball, of course. It was 9 of 24 (37.5 percent) on Thursday, and it hit 50.9 percent overall. Center Jarvis Varnado scored 14 points on 7-of-9 shooting to go with 12 rebounds, and Ravern Johnson added 12 points, making 4 of 11 overall and 3 of 10 from 3-point range.

Ten different Bulldogs scored.

Spreading the wealth helped MSU hold off a Georgia rally in the second half. A 45-30 lead was whittled to 47-42 with 14 minutes, 49 seconds left. The Bulldogs from Starkville then went on a 10-0 spurt that bloomed into a 22-6 run.

Four different players scored for State during the initial surge, with Barry Stewart and Augustus nailing back-to-back 3-pointers.

“I feel like we made some big shots, some 3-pointers, and got into the lane a lot, and we just created a lot of open shots,” said MSU point guard Dee Bost, who had seven assists.

MSU also shared the ball in a 16-2 run in the first half to go up 30-17 with 5:48 left. A Brian Johnson putback dunk just before the halftime horn gave the Bulldogs their largest lead to that point, 40-26.

Today’s matchup should be a little tougher for MSU. The Gamecocks played State tough last time, and they have Devan Downey, who Stansbury calls the best guard in the SEC.

Key for MSU, of course, is maintaining this trend of balance and keeping Augustus involved.

Once a starter who got buried on the bench, Augustus’ play has boosted his confidence along with the Bulldogs’ chances of winning the tournament.

“It’s always been high,” Augustus said of that confidence level, “but I guess even better now because it’s starting to show and I’m producing when I get in.”

Brad Locke/Daily Journal