TAMPA, Fla. – Jarvis Varnado scored 19 points and Barry Stewart added 17 Saturday to lead surging Mississippi State into the championship game of the Southeastern Conference tournament with a 67-57 upset of No. 20 LSU.
The Bulldogs (22-12) began the week needing to win two or three times to improve their chances of getting a spot in the NCAA tournament. Now, they’re in a position to claim the SEC’s automatic berth with their first conference tourney title since 2002.
LSU (26-7) beat Mississippi State twice during the regular season, but were not match this time with SEC Player of the Year Marcus Thornton scoring 14 on 5-for-19 shooting and the Tigers shooting 31 percent overall.
The victory was the fifth straight for Mississippi State. LSU has lost three of four since clinching the SEC regular-season title.
A day after scoring 21 to lead LSU past Kentucky in the quarterfinals, Thornton was 0-for-6 on 3-point attempts. The Tigers misfired on 12 of 16 attempts from behind the arc as a team, giving Mississippi State a reprieve from its own poor shooting.
The Bulldogs, the league’s best 3-point shooting team, were 3-for-16 and shot 33.3 percent overall.
Varnado had his way inside, though, making 7-for-13, grabbing seven rebounds and blocking seven shots to break the SEC single-season block record he shared with Shaquille O’Neal. The 6-foot-9 junior from Brownsville, Tenn., has 159 — two more than he had a year ago.
The Bulldogs used a late 12-1 run to put the game out of reach, but might not have needed that if Varnado had been better from the foul line. He was 5-of-12, although Stewart took up the slack by going 10-of-12.
While no one really dominated the SEC this season, LSU has been the league’s best team all season. The Tigers won both previous matchups against Mississippi State, trouncing the Bulldogs 81-57 in Baton Rouge on Jan. 21 and prevailing 97-94 in double overtime in Starkville on Feb. 11.
LSU won 10 straight before losing to Vanderbilt and Auburn the final week of the regular season, then began the SEC tournament with an impressive performance against Kentucky in the quarterfinals.
The Tigers weren’t nearly as sharp against Mississippi State, but the Bulldogs probably had as much to do with that as anything.
With Thornton going 3-for-10, LSU shot 35.3 percent from the field in the opening half. Mississippi State was only slightly better at at 35.7 percent, but got 13 points from Varnado and led 31-29 at the break.
LSU trailed 51-46 after Thornton made a free throw with six minutes to go, and that was as close as the Tigers would get down the stretch. Varnado began Mississippi State’s 12-1 run with a layup and Stewart finished it with four free throws that made 63-47.
Tasmin Mitchell led LSU with 15 points.
The Associated Press