March 15, 2010 1:08:00 PM
David Miller -
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Mississippi State''s hopes of making the NCAA Tournament were dashed Sunday afternoon, suffering its second heartbreaking loss of the season to the Kentucky Wildcats.
An automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament slipped through Mississippi State''s grasp as it lost a late lead in regulation and endured a 75-74 overtime loss in the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game at Bridgestone Arena.
Just like in Starkville earlier this season, when Mississippi State suffered an 81-75 overtime loss to Kentucky, the Bulldogs had a lead with less than three minutes to go only to have an upset bid derailed.
The way Mississippi State lost Sunday was more demoralizing than when it lost a seven-point lead in February because they missed a chance to earn the automatic bid in the NCAA Tournament.
The game wasn''t decided until the end of overtime, but what transpired at the end of regulation will haunt Mississippi State.
Kentucky went to the free line trailing by three points with 5.7 seconds remaining in regulation and Eric Bledsoe made the first before intentionally missing the second.
Kentucky guard John Wall gathered the offensive rebound and missed from the right wing, but DeMarcus Cousins tipped in the miss as the buzzer sounded.
"I don''t know," Mississippi State guard Barry Stewart said. "Time never ran out, seemed like. Longest 4.9 seconds of my life."
The regulation finish was eerily familiar to the Bulldogs'' loss to Kentucky in 2003-04 as a last second tip-in nixed a win at Humphrey Coliseum.
Sunday''s game, however, had no semblance of a home game or neutral court as Kentucky fans made up nearly 90 percent of the 20,000 in attendance.
Big Blue had plenty to celebrate when Wall, who struggled with his shot all game, made an off-balanced 3-pointer to put the Wildcats ahead by five points in OT.
With the victory, Kentucky wrapped up its 27th SEC tournament title and first since 2004.
Still, the Wildcats (32-2) opted not to cut down the nets and instead insisted they''ll go through the song and dance in the NCAA tournament. Why? The Wildcats were playing for the No. 1 overall NCAA seed.
"I think these guys, they have a picture, and it''s no -- we knew how hard this was," Calipari said. "We could have lost to Alabama. This game was a game we should have lost, too. You can''t ask these kids to climb mountain after mountain after mountain. After a while, they''ve got nothing left. So you got to figure out what mountain do you want to climb?"
Mississippi State was led in scoring by junior swingman Ravern Johnson with a game-high 20 points on 8-of-15 shooting. He missed the first meeting between the two teams due to a suspension.
Mississippi State''s Jarvis Varnado made 8-of-13 shots and scored 18 points to go along with nine rebounds and five blocks.
Kentucky got 18 points from Eric Bledsoe and 17 from Wall, who had two points at halftime.
Mississippi State''s six-game SEC Tournament winning streak was snapped and its back-to-back SEC tourney title bid fell short, along with the team''s fledging NCAA tournament chances.
Instead of muscling their way into the NCAA Tournament, the Bulldogs will host Jackson State at 9 p.m. Tuesday in the NIT.
Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury, who had already flown back to Starkville when the NCAA bracket was released, declined comment on his team''s omission.
As has been the case since the two teams'' meeting in February, Calipari remained an MSU supporter in regard to the Bulldogs'' place among the NCAA tournament at-large teams.
"If Mississippi State is not in the NCAA tournament, there''s no such thing as an eye test," Calipari said. "This was a road game for them. I don''t understand. But then again, there''s a lot of things I don''t understand."
Stansbury, obviously, was dejected following the loss. But, as disappointed as his players were at the postgame press conference, Stansbury remained upbeat about the tournament run and the memorable final.
"I''ve been in the locker room a lot of times, walked into it in the last 12 years, win some and lose some," Stansbury said. "But I''ve never walked into a locker room where I''m more proud of a bunch of guys, what they did out there today. The score has no bearing on how I feel about what they accomplished out there today because it was amazing."
Mississippi State led 35-31 at halftime and Cousins was held scoreless. Cousins was saddled with two fouls after Kodi Augustus drew a charge and sent the bruising forward to the bench.
Stewart was whistled for two fouls in the first four minutes of the game, but he stayed on the bench for just a couple of minutes before returning and playing most of the first half.
Johnson went 5 for 7 from the floor in the first half and had 12 points, but how long Mississippi State would be able to hold Wall and Cousins out of the game was the biggest question mark in its upset bid.
Cousins had a pair of dunks in Kentucky''s 9-3 run to start the second half and the Wildcats took a 40-38 lead.
The Wildcats led by as many as four points late in the second half before the Bulldogs went ahead by five points following a Varnado dunk and Johnson trey.
Kentucky was able to overcome a pair of wasted trips at the free throw line, where Eric Bledsoe and Wall each missed the front end of one-and-ones.
Mississippi State missed three throws down the stretch that could have clinched a victory.
Kentucky forced overtime on the tip in by Cousins, who said he wasn''t even looking at the rim when he released the shot.
"I knew it was good because I was looking at the red light," Cousins said.
n NOTES: With the loss, Mississippi State missed out on its third SEC tournament title during Stansbury''s tenure...Varnado and Stewart were chosen to the all-tournament team...The Wildcats are now 8-0 in games decided by five points or less and/or overtime...Despite a glaring size disadvantage, the Bulldogs out-rebounded the Wildcats 38-34.