By Parrish Alford
TAMPA, Fla. – Mississippi State had seen the LSU’s two studs in super-human performances.
In their quest to make the SEC tournament championship game, the Bulldogs needed to see Tasmin Mitchell and Marcus Thornton be average.
That was the case Saturday, and the Bulldogs will play for the title at noon today against Tennessee.
MSU center Jarvis Varnado had 19 points and seven rebounds, Barry Stewart added 17 points, and the Bulldogs defeated LSU 67-57 in Saturday’s first semifinal at the St. Pete Times Forum.
Mississippi State is in the championship game for the first time since 2003.
Thornton, the SEC Player of the Year, shredded State in Baton Rouge on Jan. 21 with 31 points on 5-for-18 3-point shooting.
Mitchell carried the load in Starkville, willing the Tigers to a 97-94 double-overtime win on Feb. 11 with 41 points, 11 rebounds and five assists. He was 12-for-15 from the floor and 15-for-18 from the free throw line.
Their stat lines were much more manageable Saturday.
“I don’t want to take anything away from Mississippi State, but Tasmin was 7-for-18 (from the floor), and Marcus was 5-for-19. I believe six or seven of those shots missed were good shots,” LSU coach Trent Johnson said. “I recall situations in each half where we had wide-open jump shots that didn’t go down.”
MSU coach Rick Stansbury said it was effort – not a grand scheme implemented for the occasion – that was the biggest factor in holding both LSU starters below their scoring averages.
There was also a certain awareness on Varnado’s part early in the second half after Mitchell hit back-to-back baskets against MSU’s Phil Turner.
“Tasmin was starting to get in a rhythm, and Jarvis said, ‘Let me switch to him to give him a different look.’ We switched up for a couple of plays, and then I went back on him.”
State led 31-29 at halftime, but Mitchell’s put-back with 17 minutes, 33 seconds remaining gave LSU a 35-34 advantage. He didn’t score almost seven minutes that followed.
The Bulldogs showed some zone and man and worked hard at getting a hand in the face of Thornton, who 0-for-6 from 3-point range.
Thornton had hit at least one 3-pointer in 18 straight games going back to an 0-for-2 performance at Utah on Jan. 6.
Stansbury wanted to mix up things against Mitchell – sophomore Kodi Augustus played key minutes there – and he credited Stewart for his defense against Thornton.
Giving Barry credit
“You see how many points Barry scores, but he doesn’t get the credit he deserves defensively,” Stansbury said. “Marcus Thornton is the most difficult player to guard in this league. He’s going to get his points.”
When the Bulldogs (22-12) got their points on Saturday it was in a different style. They attacked the rim and got the Tigers (26-7) big men in foul trouble early.
Thornton had his own foul trouble and picked up his fifth with 2:36 left. A technical was assessed to LSU’s Delwan Graham for an aggressive foul on Stewart on the same play. Stewart hit four free throws, and the Bulldogs upped their lead to 63-47.
That came near the end of a 14-2 MSU run in which it held LSU without a field goal for almost six minutes.
“The difference was the way we attacked them at the start. We didn’t settle for 3-pointers,” Stansbury said. “We shot too many 3-pointers in Starkville with Mitchell, Thornton and (Garrett) Temple up in us. Tonight we drove the ball, and that enabled us to get to the free throw line.”
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