March 9, 2013 10:13:08 PM
Scott Walters - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State University freshman guard Craig Sword summed up his team's regular season succinctly.
"We didn't finish last (in the Southeastern Conference)," Sword said. "They predicted us last, so I guess we accomplished something. That was the motivation for us the entire week.
"I don't want to say what I want to say. However, we proved them wrong."
MSU didn't have the huge motivation of a large senior class Saturday for its SEC regular-season finale against Auburn University at Humphrey Coliseum. The Bulldogs' lone senior, Baxter Price, played only three minutes. Alas, pride was the only thing that hung in the balance. MSU also wanted to avoid finishing last in the 14-team conference race.
MSU accomplished that goal, taking a 74-71 overtime win.
With the victory, MSU finishes the first regular season under first-year head coach Rick Ray 9-21 and 4-14 in the league. It is MSU's lowest win total since the 1986-87 squad finished with seven. Still, the Bulldogs won back-to-back home games to close the regular season.
"It was great finding a way to gut out a win and to go in the locker room to see so many people happy," Ray said. "You read some things where they say we are the worst team in SEC history, so I guess we can't be if we finished 13th out of 14."
MSU will play the University of South Carolina at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in the first round of the SEC tournament at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn.
Saturday's game was tight throughout, with 14 ties and 17 lead changes. In the final 14 minutes, 27 seconds of the second half, neither team led by more than three points. MSU held as much as a seven-point lead and Auburn held as much as six-point lead -- each in the first half.
The Bulldogs had numerous lifts. Colin Borchert, the former East Mississippi Community College standout, posted his first double-double with 20 points and 13 rebounds.
"I was used to getting double-doubles at EMCC," Borchert said. "I have been struggling to get offensive and defensive rebounds. Today, I got a lot of defensive rebounds. That is the one thing I have been trying to focus on."
After building a 12-5 lead, MSU fell into an offensive lull. A 14-2 run by Auburn eased the Tigers out to a 21-16 advantage.
In the opening half, each team had decent statistics but could do no better than 24-24 tie.
"I was wondering where our offense was going to come from, because we struggled so much in the first half," Ray said. "To our guys' credit, we did a good job defensively in the first half. We ran some ball-screen actions with Craig Sword up top early and he got into the lane and created offense for himself.
"He got to the foul line and just broke down the defense right away."
In the second half, the Bulldogs shot 40.6 percent from the field and topped that with a 66.7-percent clip in the overtime. The strong shooting helped offset 17 turnovers and a 16-of-29 night at the foul line.
An inability to make free throws in the second half hurt the Bulldogs' chances of pulling away. On the other end, Auburn helped its cause by converting three one-and-one situations.
The Bulldogs appeared ready to turn the corner when Borchert hit 3-pointer for a 40-36 lead with 14:27 remaining.
"I've been thinking a lot when I shoot about 'oh no, is this a bad shot' or 'should I take this right here'," Borchert said. "From now on, I'm just going to take it and not second guess myself. I have a pretty good percentage and even though Chicken (Sword) was asking for the ball, I had to just let it ride."
Borchert hit the clutch shot with a 22-foot 3-pointer to the left of the key with 18 seconds left in regulation time. The Bulldogs got a hold on the other end and then took over in the extra period.
"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."
In the overtime, the Bulldogs took the lead for good at 71-69 on a Fred Thomas 3-pointer with 2:21 left to play. After Allen Payne tied the game with 54 seconds left, the Bulldogs again took the lead for good when Sword hit two free throws with 34 seconds left in regulation.
Defensively, Roquez Johnson followed with a key block and hit one of two free throws to close out the win.
Sword finished with 19 points, while Thomas and Johnson had 10 apiece for the Bulldogs. Chris Denson led Auburn with 24 points.
Next up for MSU is the rubber game of this season's series with South Carolina.
"They're coached to be tough and so they're going to try and challenge our toughness," Borchert said. "That's mentally and physically tough and that will be our challenge with them."
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter