By Parrish Alford/ NEMS Daily Journal
NASHVILLE – Kentucky’s marquee players looked quite average Sunday afternoon, but at the last possible second DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall came up big.
Mississippi State missed key free throws down the stretch and watched a three-point lead slip away in the last 4.9 seconds in regulation, as the No. 2-ranked Wildcats won the SEC tournament championship 75-74 in overtime at Bridgestone Arena.
It was State’s second overtime loss to Kentucky this season.
Cousins had just six points when, after a battle for possession, he grabbed Wall’s errant shot and scored at the buzzer to force the extra period.
With 4.9 seconds left, Wall had run down a loose ball in the corner when teammate Eric Bledsoe intentionally missed a second free throw after his first had the Wildcats still down by two.
Bledsoe led Kentucky (32-2) with 18 points.
Wall, the SEC tournament MVP who was just 3-for-13 in regulation, scored seven points in overtime, which MSU played without its best defender, Barry Stewart, who fouled out when he intentionally put Bledsoe at the free-throw line with State ahead by three.
“I’ve never walked into a locker room where I’ve been more proud of a bunch of guys for what they did out there today,” MSU coach Rick Stansbury said. “The score has no bearing for how I feel on what they accomplished, because it was amazing.”
Some national college basketball analysts had predicted no NCAA bid for State if the Bulldogs did not beat Kentucky.
Indeed, that’s the way it played out a few hours later.
“Let me start by telling you that this eye test they talk about … if Mississippi State is not in the NCAA tournament, there’s no such thing as an eye test,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said.
Ravern Johnson led the Bulldogs with 20 points, going 4-for-8 from 3-point range, and Jarvis Varnado had 18 points, nine rebounds and five blocked shots.
He did not aggressively challenge Cousins’ put-back at the end of regulation, because he thought time had expired.
The Bulldogs were ahead by five when Patrick Patterson scored from 17 feet to make it 62-59 with 1 minute, 28 seconds left.
Varnado missed two free throws with 1:06 left when the lead was still three, then Dee Bost missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 27.4 seconds left when the lead was 62-61 after a Wall steal and dunk at the 40-second mark.
Victory seemed all but certain when Wall missed a short jumper in the lane, and Stewart hit two free throws with 8.2 seconds remaining to make it 64-61.
“The end, that was the longest 4.9 seconds in my life. It seemed like time never ran out,” Stewart said.
State went ahead 57-55 on a Bost 3-pointer with 5 minutes left in regulation.
The Wildcats repeatedly came away with empty offensive possessions as they attacked Varnado late. In the final 3 minutes Cousins was tied up by Varnado, stripped by Phil Turner and missed on a 1-on-1 move against Varnado.
Cousins, the SEC leader in double-doubles, finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
“(Varnado) is a tremendous player. That’s a tough matchup for anybody to play against. He’s got so much length, and he’s so good at what he does.”