NIT First Round Recap - Mississippi State vs Jackson State
(1) Mississippi State 81. (8) Jackson State 67
The Mississippi State Bulldogs might have been bitterly disappointed about being dumped at the NCAA Tournament altar, but to their credit, they didn't allow that setback to sabotage their performance less than 60 hours after their encounter with exquisite agony.
Yes, it had to be very difficult for Coach Rick Stansbury's team to muster up the will to play on Tuesday night in Starkville, Miss. This band of Bulldog brothers had just been stomach punched twice in the span of roughly three and a half hours on Sunday afternoon.
A little after 3 p.m. Eastern time on March 14, Mississippi State watched as a three-point lead with 4.9 seconds left turned into overtime in the SEC Tournament final against Kentucky. MSU, leading 64-61, was wise enough to foul the Wildcats and deny UK a chance to tie the game with a three-point shot. However, Kentucky was able to pull off the "make the first free throw and intentionally miss the second" strategy, as UK's DeMarcus Cousins flipped the ball into the bucket at the buzzer. The freshman phenom had the presence of mind to get the ball out of his hand before the red light on the backboard flashed to signify the end of regulation time. Cousins's hand released the rock with 0.1 seconds showing on the clock at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. Replays confirmed that Mississippi State - in search of an automatic bid to the Big Dance - was 0.1 seconds away from returning to the NCAA Tournament one year after the Bulldogs had punched their ticket under very similar circumstances.
In 2009, MSU was not at-large worthy when the middle of March arrived, but Stansbury's students produced a magical weekend in Tampa, Fla., as they rolled to the SEC Tournament championship to pluck an automatic bid. The Bulldogs were just about to do the same thing in 2010, until DeMarcus Cousins ruined their plans. Kentucky - clearly liberated and emboldened by its late-game escape - put away Mississippi State in overtime, and all the Bulldogs could do was wait and hope that their stellar performance - even in defeat - would be enough to get them one of the last at-large invites to the field of 65.
It was not to be.
Just before 7 p.m. Eastern time on Selection Sunday, the final teams in the last of the four regions were announced, and Mississippi State's name didn't come up. Stansbury and his players were bitterly disappointed, and guard Dee Bost openly wondered how the Bulldogs were going to find the will to play in the NIT. Just a few hours after enduring the wrenching loss to Kentucky, the MSU crew learned - in front of the whole nation, with camera crews following their reaction to the selection show - that it was not going to be able to put on its Dancing shoes. Later on that sad Sunday night, the young men of Mississippi State discovered that they'd have to play on Tuesday in the opening round of the NIT against the Jackson State Tigers of the Southwestern Athletic Conference. The Tuesday tip ensured a very short turnaround for MSU, and a crowd inside Humphrey Coliseum had to wonder if the home team would possess enough desire and willpower to take care of business.
Those doubts don't have to linger any longer.
Mississippi State didn't have to sweat the stretch run. The Bulldogs turned in a reasonably consistent performance and maintained a double-digit lead for much of the second half, coasting to the finish line with a 14-point margin.
Big man Jarvis Varnado and Bost, his backcourt mate, powered MSU to the relatively easy win. The two prime performers converted more foul shots (17) than Jackson State attempted (16). By combining for 39 points, Varnado and Bost made sure that there would be no profound letdown for a team still licking its emotional wounds.
Mississippi State will host fourth-seeded North Carolina in the second round of the NIT. The matchup will be interesting because of two players who will not be seen on the Humphrey Coliseum floor. Last year, Tyler Hansbrough was playing ball for North Carolina and leading the Tar Heels to the national title. Mississippi State's 2008 squad had a scrappy little point guard named Ben Hansbrough, who transferred to Notre Dame last year and is now in the NCAA Tournament with the Fighting Irish. Call this game the "Hansbrough Bowl."
By Matt Zemek
DFN Sports Senior Staff Writer