Bulldogs make semis, stay in NCAA hunt

By Seth Emerson/Special to the Journal

NASHVILLE – Rick Stansbury won’t even try to shield his players from all the NCAA tournament talk. There’s too much information out there, especially with players and their “walking computers” as Stansbury put it.
“Our guys understand where we’re at,” the Mississippi State basketball coach said. “Our guys understand what they have to do.”
After Friday night, the Bulldogs have a little less to do – but still plenty.
Mississippi State built a big lead, then held on to upend Florida 75-69 in the SEC tournament quarterfinals.
The Bulldogs (22-10) take on the hometown favorites, No. 20 Vanderbilt (24-7) at 2:15 p.m. in today’s second semifinal game. Both games are on ABC.
MSU led wire-to-wire on Friday, but saw a 19-point lead whittle to as little as three in the final minute. And a couple times before that, it was a four-point lead and Gator ball.
In any case, the Bulldogs survived the tournament and, at least for now, the NCAA tournament bubble.
Mississippi State entered the day with an RPI rank of 68, according to CollegeRPI.com. State is 1-4 against teams ranked in the RPI top 50, its best win coming over Old Dominion.
The Bulldogs have also been helped by events elsewhere, as bubble teams fell at conference tournaments throughout the country. But they probably still need to reach Sunday’s championship game to have a good chance.
“When you think about what’s going on around you, you might play tight,” guard Barry Stewart said. “As a team as a whole we’re doing a good job of staying within the moment.”
The Bulldogs had energy from the outset, darting out to a 10-0 lead. Then the 3s started falling: They nailed four of their first six, and a Jarvis Varnado dunk made it 26-11. Romero Osby hit a 3 to make it 34-19. Ravern Johnson hit another to make it 39-25.
In all, the Bulldogs were 7-for-11 beyond the arc in the first half, with five different players hitting at least one.
It carried into the second half, with Stewart even converting a four-point play. The lead reached its high on a fast-break layup by Varnado – then State’s shots stopped falling and Florida’s run began.
Luckily for the Bulldogs, every time the Gators had a chance to cut it closer they blew the chance. Down four with a little more than two minutes left, Kenny Boynton missed a runner, and on the other end the Bulldogs ran the clock before Ravern Johnson sunk a long jumper. When the Gators got back within four and got possession, they threw the ball away with 47 seconds left.
Florida (21-12) depended too much on its guards, getting very little scoring from post players. By contract Mississippi State had six players score between eight and 17 points.
“We knew we had a letdown against Tennessee,” Varnado said, referring to the home loss last Saturday. “So me and Barry challenged the guys to come out and play hard and play together and play as one, and that’s what we did tonight.”