March 10, 2013 7:46:28 AM
STARKVILLE - If there was ever a team and a year to smile and be filled with pride about simply not finishing last in the Southeastern Conference, this Mississippi State University team is that team. This MSU season is that year. And Bulldogs coach Rick Ray understood both of those concepts following a 74-71 overtime victory over Auburn University Saturday at Humphrey Coliseum.
"You get a chance to read some things and we're the worst team ever in SEC history and so I guess we can't be that if we finished 13 out of 14," Ray said after the win.
Ray was referencing a 'Bubble Watch' blog post written by ESPN.com college basketball reporter Eammon Brennan to describe the perceived national embarrassment for the University of Mississippi's loss to MSU last week.
"Our kids play hard and they do it every day in practice to exhaustion so you want to see them have some sort of success with how hard they play," Ray said. "For those guys to continue to fight when really to the outside world, this game means nothing. Let's be honest. I told our guys who cares 'if we finish 13th or 14th in the league but it should mean something to you to play hard and get a win."
The win moves Mississippi State into the 13th seed in the upcoming SEC tournament, just ahead of Auburn University. The Bulldogs will play the University of South Carolina on Wednesday night for the third time this season.
"They're coached to be tough and so they're going to try and challenge our toughness," MSU junior forward Colin Borchert said. "That's mentally and physically tough and that will be our challenge with them."
Borchert hit the game-tying 3-point basket toward the end of regulation and sophomore forward Roquez Johnson provided the big lift in overtime in the regular season finale for each team.
"He's been a different player since he came back from suspension,' Ray said of Johnson's performance. "It's that simple and he's a guy that has been making a lot of loose ball plays and getting 50/50 balls for us."
Borchert, the former East Mississippi Community College standout, posted his first double-double at MSU with 20 points and 13 rebounds. For MSU (9-21, 4-14) it was the fourth double-double this season. Craig Sword added 19 points, while Fred Thomas and Johnson each added 10 points apiece.
"Statistically this would be his best game I would think," Ray said. "He just needs to make shots. He was brought here on scholarship as a skilled four now you're getting a chance to see his skill set in these last four games to now."
Over the final 14:27 of the second half, neither team enjoyed more than a 3-point advantage.
"When the game gets tight like that, we really do play every possession like it's our last one and I think that's a sign of maturity for all of us," MSU freshman guard Craig Sword said.
Sword was 7 of 17 from the field with six assists, two blocks and two steals.
"I'm not going to say what I want to say but we proved them wrong," Sword said when reminded MSU was picked to finish last in the SEC.
Auburn (9-22, 3-15) was led by Chris Denson's 24 points on 9-of-18 shooting. Rob Chubb added 18 points on 7-of-12 shooting and had seven rebounds.
For MSU, the victory came on Senior Day for former walk-on Baxter Price. Given a scholarship this season, Price logged more playing time in the second half of the season as injuries began to mount. In his final home game in Humphrey Coliseum, Price played three minutes.
After the game, the idea that MSU was able to finish at least one spot ahead of a school in the final SEC regular season standings was not lost on players that have suffered through one of the more frustrating and exhausting seasons in school history that included eight 25-plus point losses and four season-ending knee injuries.
"Today proved that we're making little step and you know what, it proved we're not the worst team in the SEC," Borchert said. "That's always a good thing."
All of the Dispatch MSU Sports Blog readers: feel free to follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/matthewcstevens for up-to-date Mississippi State coverage.
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