"So I guess we can't be that if we finished 13th out of 14th!" Ray quipped.
Mississippi State will go to the Southeastern Conference Tournament as the #13 seed, with a 4-14 league record and 9-21 overall mark. They draw a 6:30 Wednesday matchup with #12 South Carolina, who the Dogs last faced only this past Wednesday in Columbia. Auburn occupies the seeding cellar at 3-15 and were 9-22 overall leaving Humphrey Coliseum, having split the season series with State.
"It felt good," said forward Colin Borchert, whose clutch trey at 18 seconds of regulation forced the overtime. Combined with last Saturday's upset of Ole Miss, "It just proves we are making little steps. That we're not the worst team in the SEC! That's always a good thing."
The Bulldogs also proved that, against all sorts of odds, they also had enough left in the team-tank to come out ahead. With leading scorer Jalen Steele lost Wednesday to another knee injury, Ray had eight healthy players to work with. And none came in averaging double-digit points. So besides losing all that offense State had to run a sideline shuttle just to keep some semblance of fresh legs on the court. To take it into overtime only stressed the fragile system further.
"You look at the minutes we played with only six scholarship players," Ray said. "Trivante (Bloodman) must have a third lung in there to play 39 minutes!" If so that was about the only superfluous body part available, because due to prior injuries there were more varsity Dogs in sweats on the bench than uniformed personnel.
So how did they win? Especially as Auburn shot 52% in the second half and led for much of the period, including with 0:30 left after a Frankie Sullivan layup? "We got down and played and got a lot of stops," Sword said.
And made some shots, too. None bigger than Borchert's. A week ago he led the offense in beating the Rebels. This Saturday he put up a team-best 20 points, making 7-of-11 shots and 4-of-6 at the arc. It was the sort of two-way attack the juco forward had been signed for but struggled to produce until March.
Instead of thinking too much ("Colin thinks?!" Ray joked later when told) Borchert said he cleared the mind and took what was open. "I was kind of feeling it. Chicken (Sword) was asking for the ball but I kind of let it ride." Not only that but Borchert rode the glass for a season-best 13 rebounds as State held a 46-42 advantage in rebounds.
Sword wasn't a bad other option though, scoring 19 points himself. His shooting, 7-of-17 wasn't as sharp, but the aggressive freshman forced Auburn into tough defensive situations. Most of all so in the overtime. With a 71-71 tie it was Sword crisscrossing the lane for a layup that didn't go, but drawing a foul. His free throws put the Bulldogs in front to stay, and forward Rocquez Johnson added the other free throw at 0:20. In-between Tiger Chris Denson had missed his baseline for the lead under pressure. Enough to have Auburn Coach Tony Barbee frustrated over no foul call.
Auburn did twice lead in the extra period, first on Sullivan free throws at 4:32 and then again at 3:37 as center Rob Chubb laid it in. State center Gavin Ware had chances to tie it at 2:59 with free throws, making and missing in turn. But Denson's layup try rolled awry and off the ensuing break MSU guard Fred Thomas pulled on an open wing-three.
It hit. And when Johnson blocked an Auburn longball and got the rebound the Bulldogs had the momentum and confidence to finish. Johnson scored ten points with five boards, while Thomas scored ten too and was 2-of-5 at the arc…genuine improvement for the frustrated shooter.
Auburn got 24 points from Denson, but none in overtime. This was after he ran wild much of the second period and threatened to take over by himself. What made the difference ultimately was making him alter direction per Sword. "We stopped him from going left. Every time he went left he finished. We saw it and Coach told us during a timeout."
Chubb added 18 points and seven boards before fouling out at 34 seconds, and Sullivan scored 12. Both teams took 17 trey-tries but for a change the Bulldogs were more accurate at the arc, seven to three. Not only did Sword limit his long attempts to one (missed) but he had twice as many assists as turnovers and blocked two shots. Johnson swatted aside three and Borchert two more.
Ware made just one shot all day with his seven rebounds. Still in a way the freshman center did enough to give veteran post Chubb the right challenge. "Chubb is a big old physical kid, he throws his body around in there," Ray said. "But Gavin did get some opportunities, he just had a hard time finishing inside but he went right back and got the offensive rebound and threw his body around.
Ray was also pleased how the Bulldogs went to a 1-3-1 defense late to deny Sullivan the ball. "It worked, we made other people make plays and they didn't convert."
Having evaded last-place stigma, Mississippi State can think about breaking a regular-season tie with South Carolina. The Bulldogs won in Starkville on the first day of the SEC season, and after a late second half surge fell short—not least when Steele's right knee was injured—the lost by double digits in Columbia. Now they rematch in neutral Nashville.
Neither team has post-season aspirations left. Still it is another chance to play some ball, said Sword. "We did want this win. We got it, now we're going to the SEC Tournament and going to play our best."