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MSU will face Kentucky for SEC Tournament title

 

David Miller

 

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Another big lead. Another nail-biter of a second half. Another Mississippi State appearance in the finals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament. 

 

The Bulldogs rode their defense and received 11 points off the bench from Phil Turner to post a 62-52 win against Vanderbilt on Saturday at Bridgestone Arena. 

 

MSU (23-10) will face No. 2 Kentucky (31-2) at noon today (WKDH) for a chance to earn the SEC''s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.  

 

The Bulldogs held the Commodores to 34.5 percent shooting and held center A.J. Ogilvy for two points.  

 

MSU also held point guard Jermaine Beal (11 points) in check. 

 

The Bulldogs got especially stingy in the final three minutes, forcing three turnovers and three misses in Vanderbilt''s final seven possessions.  

 

Barry Stewart led MSU with 14 points and eight rebounds, while Jarvis Varnado had 11 points, nine rebounds, and six blocked shots.  

 

For the second straight day, MSU posted a win against one of the top four from the SEC''s Eastern Division, begging the question: Has MSU done enough to earn an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament? 

 

The win against Vanderbilt gives them their second against a top-50 RPI rated team.  

 

MSU coach Rick Stansbury dodged the question with colorful banter during the postgame press conference, but there''s no doubt his team helped its at-large chances with its second tournament win and a place in today''s final at noon. 

 

A victory today against No. 2 Kentucky would make that argument irrelevant.  

 

MSU''s matchup against Kentucky gives the league a rematch of one of its top games this season. Kentucky clinched its berth to the final with a 74-45 victory against Tennessee in Saturday''s tournament opener. 

 

Kentucky won the now-infamous, protest-ridden 81-75 overtime game against MSU at Humphrey Coliseum. 

 

"When they came to our place, we had them but it slipped away," Varnado said. "We wanted this rematch and we''ll be up for it." 

 

Crucial to MSU''s success this season and concentrated during the SEC tournament is its bench play. While it wasn''t dominate in terms of point production Saturday, it was enough to take the pressure off Varnado and Kodi Augustus inside.  

 

Guard Phil Turner finished with 11 points off the bench and was instrumental with a pair of 3-pointers and a strong layup at Ogilvy in a 7-0 run in the first half. Romero Osby and Turner combined for 16 bench points on 6-of-12 shooting from the floor. 

 

"Phil brought us a lot of emotional energy today, and plus he jumped up and made some shots," Stansbury said. "Defensively, he''s kind of a wild card. He guards those other big guys at the forward, and we were able to mix it up enough where he was able to double that post. We found a way to not get him hurt much defensively." 

 

MSU''s lead swelled at the start of the second half, as two Kodi Augustus jumpers and a 3-pointer from Dee Bost fueled an 8-2 run. The Bulldogs led 42-29 just two minutes into the second half. 

 

MSU entered the game having won 18 of the 21 games it led at halftime this season. The Bulldogs just needed to have a championship-caliber second half to secure a spot in today''s final.  

 

However, the Commodores matched the Bulldogs'' initial run with a 16-7 spurt to cut MSU''s lead to single digits with under eight minutes to play.  

 

The Bulldogs didn''t help themselves by settling for deep jumpers during the run as the Commodores camped out on the perimeter and doubled Varnado in the post. 

 

Brad Tinsley came off the bench and hit a pair of 3-pointers to get Vanderbilt within 51-48. The Commodores also stuck with their press and forced a pair of turnovers from Bost and Augustus.  

 

But the Commodores went cold and lost focus in the last three minutes. On three straight possessions, they turned the ball over and followed that up with misses from Andre Walker and Tinsley.  

 

Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings took the blame for how his team played in the final minutes but refused to go into detail when asked about the Commodores'' careless play.  

 

"Guys weren''t really playing to their strengths, and that''s my fault," Stallings said. "It''s my fault I''ve got guys that will get themselves in the wrong position and in a position where they''re not ordinarily successful. We had some turnovers. We took some bad shots. We got some balls blocked. It take responsibility for that because that could have been avoided if I had done a better job." 

 

MSU''s tournament win was a school-record sixth straight, and the Bulldogs set a school record with its 300th 3-pointer of the season. The Bulldogs enter today''s final looking for their third SEC tournament title under Stansbury.

 

 

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