March 15, 2009
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) -- When Mississippi State finished its surprising run through the Southeastern Conference tournament, Twany Beckham grabbed an SEC sign and hoisted it high above his head.
One problem: It was upside-down, which may have been fitting considering it was the Bulldogs celebrating the league title and an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament, not regular-season winner LSU, co-East Division champion Tennessee or perennial powerhouse Kentucky.
"The only thing I know is we don't have to sit here and worry about being on a bubble," Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said. "We busted that bubble. That's all that matters."
The Bulldogs showed the rest of the SEC teams that were waiting for the decision of the NCAA selection committee that the best way to get in is take care of your own business.
Phil Turner scored seven of his 12 points in the final 1:35 Sunday, and Mississippi State knocked off Tennessee 64-61. The NCAA seeded the Bulldogs 13th in the West Region, while the Volunteers are the No. 9 seed in the East.
Turner, who had 10 rebounds, hit a big 3-pointer to put Mississippi State (23-12) in front for good, then made two free throws with 8 seconds left to help the Bulldogs hold off the Volunteers (21-12) in a wild finish.
Cameron Tatum's long 3-pointer bounced off the rim and Mississippi State's Barry Stewart rebounded as time ran out on Tennessee's hopes of winning the tournament for the first time in 30 years.
Wayne Chism led the Volunteers with 15 points, but he missed seven of nine 3-points attempts a day after going 4-of-6 to key a victory over Auburn in the semifinals. J.P Prince had 14 points and leading scorer Tyler Smith had 12 on 2-of-14 shooting.
The victory was the sixth straight for the Bulldogs, whose first SEC title since 2002 ensured the league at least least three spots in the NCAA field. LSU, the No. 8 seed in the South, joined them and Tennessee.
Auburn, South Carolina and Florida were left out after entering the conference tournament trying to improve their postseason resume.
Tennessee had hoped winning the SEC tournament for the fifth time would improve its seeding in the NCAA tournament.
"I told our guys that first of all, we obviously didn't help our seed, so the road to the Final Four will be much more difficult, much more challenging." coach Bruce Pearl said.
"We've been consistently inconsistent. If we can get it going again, because we've been playing great basketball here in March, we'll forget about the disappointment of not winning this tournament. But if we're not able to pick us up again, this missed opportunity will hurt for a long time."
Mississippi State's run was reminiscent of Georgia's stunning march through the SEC tournament last year. Georgia won four games in three days to earn an improbable NCAA berth after finishing last in the regular-season conference standings.
Stewart and Ravern Johnson both scored 11 points for Mississippi State, which also got 10 points, seven rebounds and six blocks from tournament MVP Jarvis Varnado. The Bulldogs held Tennessee to 29 percent shooting and forced two of the Volunteers' 14 turnovers with the game on the line.
"There's a guy that found a way to dig deep when there's absolutely nothing left in that tank to help us win the game," Stansbury said of the exhausted Varnado, a 6-foot-9 junior from Brownsville, Tenn.
Prince made one of two free throws to cut Tennessee's deficit to 62-61 and the Vols got a break when the rebound went out of bounds off Varnado with 9.6 seconds left. But Smith was unable to inbound ball, leading to a 5-second call that gave the ball to Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs turned it right back when Dee Bost took the inbound pass and dribbled out of bounds, giving Tennessee another chance that the Vols squandered when Stewart tipped an inbound pass that landed in Turner's hands.
Tennessee immediately fouled the sophomore guard, who made both free throws, setting the stage for a celebration.
The Bulldogs piled onto Stewart and Turner in front of the Tennessee bench, then slipped on championship shirts and hats and started dancing all over the court. Beckham grabbed the SEC placard, while Brian Johnson directed the pep band through a chorus of the school fight song.
Mississippi State accepted the championship trophy, landed Varnado and Stewart on the all-tournament team, and cut down the nets in the half-empty St. Pete Times Forum, which drew a crowd of just 10,093 for the final.
"That last 22 seconds, I can promise you we didn't lose no TV viewers," Stansbury said. "We made it interesting."
Overall, the tournament drew 132,181 for six sessions over four days -- the lowest attendance for the league's showcase event since 1991, when it was played in Nashville, Tenn., and without perennial SEC powerhouse Kentucky, which was on probation.
For Tennessee, it was more postseason disappointment under Pearl, who's 3-3 in the SEC tournament. The Vols hadn't been in the SEC final since 1991 and last won it all in 1979.
"One of the toughest things about this season has been ... I continue to hear how people are disappointed," Pearl said.
"Well, we disappointed them again. At the same time, I'm proud of my basketball team for how many times we've picked ourselves up off the deck and played beautiful basketball."