March 13, 2010 11:44:00 PM
David Miller -
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Mississippi State men''s basketball team had its best offensive performance of the season Friday night, but had to stave off a furious Florida comeback on Day 2 of the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
MSU led by as many as 17 points before watching its flawless offensive display nearly go for naught when Florida cut the lead to four deep in the second half.
But seniors and Tennessee natives Jarvis Varnado and Barry Stewart scored 15 and 17 points, respectively, to lead MSU to a 75-69 win at the Bridgestone Arena.
With the win, the Bulldogs (22-10) advance to face No. 20 Vanderbilt, which defeated Georgia, on Saturday. The Bulldogs advanced to their fourth straight SEC tournament semifinal.
MSU showed no signs of the early game lag it experienced against Tennessee, racing to a 10-0 lead with just one basket coming off a deep jump shot.
"That game was last season as far as I''m concerned," Stewart said of the team''s reversal of fortunes from last weekend. "We''re competing for a championship."
The Gators, on the other hand, missed their first five shots and found themselves in a 13-2 hole after Stewart knocked down a step-back 3-pointer.
The Bulldogs opted for drives to the basket via pick and roll before opening up the Florida defense to get it going from deep.
A pair of 3-pointers from Romero Osby and one from Riley Benock gave a glimpse into what kind of night it would be for the Bulldogs, who were 15 of 24 in the first half to carry a 39-28 lead into the break.
"We shared the basketball and I didn''t think there wasn''t but about two quick shots that we took. A lot of nights, I can''t say that," MSU coach Rick Stansbury said. "Florida is a good defensive basketball team. It''s so important for our team to get off to a good start. That gave us a lot of confidence."
Osby was pivotal in the Bulldogs'' first half, finishing with eight points and providing the bench play Stansbury said would be crucial for MSU''s quest to capture a second-straight SEC Tournament title.
"When we get that play out of Romero, we''re hard to beat," Stewart said.
Surprisingly, Osby played just five minutes in the second half. But initially, things didn''t slow down in the second for the Bulldogs, who immediately jumped out to a 50-35 lead after Stewart converted a four-point play to the bemusement of Florida guard Kenny Boynton, who was called for the foul.
Stewart''s play signified just what kind of night it was for the Bulldogs, who finished with a 57-percent field goal clip and 10 of 20 3-point makes.
Just six days after arguably their worst performance of the season, the Bulldogs put together a gem of an opener in the SEC Tournament.
"I think sometimes you have to give the other team credit," Donovan said. "We were able to get up on Auburn because they didn''t shoot the ball well. Mississippi State did. In the first half, we shoot 32 percent and they shoot over 50, so it''s not rocket science why we got in a hole. There were some tough shots they made and there were some open looks we gave them."
Still, with everything that was going right for the Bulldogs they watched their lead dwindle from 17 points to six following a 13-2 run from the Gators.
MSU pushed its lead back to 11 following a Varnado and-1 and a trey from Ravern Johnson, but started the last three minutes with a seven-point lead.
Then, Florida''s Dan Werner muscled Phil Turner and completed an old-fashioned 3-point play to cut State''s lead to 68-64 with just over two minutes left.
The teams traded buckets before Werner made a costly mistake by losing the handle with a minute left and the Gators trailing by four.
From there, Barry Stewart knocked down five of six from the line to pad State''s lead in the waning minutes and push the Bulldogs two steps closer to locking up an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
"If he would have caught the ball, he had a clear path to step to the rim," Florida head coach Billy Donovan said. "He tried to catch it, take off and go instead of catching the ball and setting up. That''s a play I''d like to have back. We had numbers and couldn''t have gotten a stop with time for another look."
A major part of MSU success Friday was the double teams thrown at Florida center Vernon Macklin, who finished with 3 points. Macklin scored 20 when the Gators beat the Bulldogs in Gainesville this season. Macklin''s frontcourt mate Alex Tyus finished with five, and both players combined for four free throws.
"We were expecting it. They did it some in Gainesville," Donovan said of the double teams. "A lot of points that Vernon got (in Gainesville) were on rolls to the basket and hitting him on the run. (Tonight) We were trying to invite the double team because it was creating offense for us. I told Vernon this today before the game, ''They''re probably going to try and take you out of the game.
"I thought Vernon touched the ball a lot but just didn''t have a lot of opportunities to score."
Varnado added four blocks to go with four rebounds. MSU point guard Dee Bost scored 10 points and had five assists, while Johnson had 12 and Augustus 10 to give MSU five players in double-figure scoring.
Florida was led by Boynton, who finished with 19 points. Erving Walker added 19.
The Bulldogs, similar to last season, have a lot of weight riding on winning the SEC Tournament, which suits Varnado just fine.
"I feel like we have nothing to lose," Varnado said. "We had success last year in playing together and we wanted to keep that focus coming into this tournament. We aren''t the deepest team but we''re going to fight."