But the Tigers were very much in contention to snap that streak, having slashed a ten-point deficit to a 59-58 difference with more than four minutes left to complete a comeback. Leading Bulldog scorers guard Craig Sword and center Gavin Ware were in foul troubles, Auburn's three-quarters-court trap was causing chaos, and even after getting the ball across time was running out.
Somehow it found big guard Cunningham, who'd only entered at 5:08. He was well-past the arc and not the ideal offensive option, yet… "Coach always tells me to be ready no matter what." Cunningham did shoot and though he missed Tiger point guard Tahj Shamsid-Deen made a completely unnecessary foul on the shooter.
Cunningham converted two of the three chances for a bit of breathing room. After Shamsid-Deen missed the front end of a 1-and-1 the Bulldogs weren't able to get off any shot, but that proved a great break as the ball was tied-up. Possession pointed State's way and with more time to work the ball again came back to Cunningham at three-point range.
"I heard Chicken saying shoot it, shoot it! So I just pulled it." And hit it too, at 3:23. For good measure Cunningham followed that by taking a charge off K.T. Harrell under the Auburn goal for a forced turnover, that became a dunk from forward Rocquez Johnson.
State's lead kept building to 73-60 with 96 seconds remaining. Clever use of fouls and timeouts and some tough chances let Auburn claw back as close as four points twice, but free throws from forward Colin Borchert and guard Trivante Bloodman sealed the success.
"Really a good win for our program and our team. I'm happy how our team handled adversity," Coach Rick Ray said. "It was a comedy of errors down the stretch, the bottom line is we're able to persevere."
Not only in the closing stretch, either. Mississippi State was playing a second game without point guard I.J. Ready, still showing concussion after-effects. The eight available Bulldog regulars proceeded to fall behind 15-6 as Auburn stuck seven of their first ten shots. And Ware was sitting by 12:59 with his second foul. With the Tigers playing full-time zone, though mixing the styles, this one could have gotten away.
It didn't, thanks to somewhat unexpected help in the form of made-treys by a team that doesn't do lots at that line. Guard Fred Thomas threw in a three that stemmed the momentum; then Borchert stuck treys from both sides of the keyhole.
"Coach said work inside-out," Borchert said. "But if they gave me an inch, I'm a shooter. So I just shot!" His second make gave State its first lead, 25-23, and by halftime it was a 34-25 margin. "The biggest thing is we ended the first half getting ten of the twelve stops," Ray said. "We can run out and not worry about if they're in the zone, that was a huge difference in our offense."
Putting Ware on the court to open the new half lasted all of eight seconds before picking up his third foul. State still was able to stretch out to a 40-30 lead at 15:31 before the Tiger's trapping showed results with either turnovers or hasty shots that missed. Ware returned for consecutive baskets, then midway of the period Auburn made its run with seven points from Harrell.
Sword's fourth foul at 6:47 was what brought Cunningham onto the court, and Auburn was worse for the exchange. Big as his five points proved, making that defensive stop might have been more energizing for the squad. "I saw (Harrell) driving and I was in the lane, the first thing in my mind was get set and take it." He took it alright, Cunningham's head hitting the hardwood sharply enough that he subbed out at 3:06. Sword's fifth foul brought him back at 2:49.
"I had a little energy, and it carried over."
Johnson led with 18 points, entirely off the bench. Though as things played out he was a tougher matchup around the lane for Auburn's big men than Ware. "Coach was telling me they're not a physical team, so I went hard in the paint. Me and Colin went down there and they couldn't guard us." Borchert had 17 points with three treys. Thomas added 14 and Bloodman 13. Sword managed just six points in 26 minutes but had eight assists.
Auburn's Harrell outscored everyone with 24 points, going 4-of-8 on trey tries. Shamsid-Deen had 17 points, and both Asauhn Dixon-Tatum and Allen Payne 12 apiece with 23 combined rebounds. The final margin of MSU victory was inflated by free throws, with the Dogs 31-of-43 at the arc as Auburn often fouled before the ball could be inbounded in the last two minutes. The Tigers were 12-of-13 at the stripe, but got no points from any of the four substitutes who saw the court.
Ray was proud of his team's perseverance, but maybe more so how the eventually got a grip on Auburn's traps and changing zones. The first half was designed to take time off when we got across, the second half was pressure. Our guys did a great job figuring that out."
Now above .500 in league play and on a two-win streak, State risks both with a road trip to Ole Miss. The Bulldogs outlasted their rivals 76-72 back on January 11 but have the rematch after just two weeks. And this time Ole Miss has a full-strength roster. Game time is 3:00 in Oxford.