Bulldogs topple Tennessee, advance to SEC Tournament semifinals

Published 3:59 pm Friday, March 15, 2024

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Forget the bubble. Mississippi State is starting to think about a championship.

Cameron Matthews and Josh Hubbard scored 18 points each, and ninth-seeded Mississippi State dominated top-seeded and fifth-ranked Tennessee 73-56 Friday in the Southeastern Conference men’s basketball tournament quarterfinals.

This victory should push the Bulldogs (21-12) firmly off the NCAA Tournament bubble with their second win over Tennessee this season. They will play No. 12 Auburn Saturday at noon, in their first semifinal appearance since winning this event in 2009.

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Auburn routed No. 15 South Carolina 86-55 in another quarterfinal game Friday.

“It’s a big relief. For two years since I’ve been here, we always get put out in this round, two, three — I don’t know how long it’s been,” said Mississippi State’s D.J. Jeffries, who had eight points and seven rebounds. “Just relief to get to the final four. Never been in the SEC final four.”

Mississippi State, which ended the regular season on a four-game losing streak, never trailed against the SEC’s top seed with the Vols managing one tie at 2-2. The Bulldogs also held Dalton Knecht, the AP SEC Player of the Year who averaged 25.5 points in league play, to 14 points.

Zakai Zeigler had a game-high 20 points, and Jahmai Mashack added 10 for Tennessee.

“With Knecht, you do the best you can, make him a volume scorer, make it hard. With Zeigler, you got to do your best. They’re obviously both really good players,” Mississippi State coach Chris Jans said. “We felt good about the match-up, and that’s helped us. We beat them. We got confidence going into this game. Our kids felt good about the match-up all day long.”

Tennessee (24-8) hurt its hopes for the first No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament in program history with a second straight loss. The regular season champions leave as losers in the quarterfinals for a second straight year after winning this tournament in 2022.

“We are who we are right now. We’ve got a week or so to fix it and go back,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “We have a system that we believe in. We have to scrub it out, look at it. It will go back to a mindset. That’s what I spent a lot of time talking to our team about, our mindset. Where is it? Where was it? Why was it like this today?”

Mississippi State, which beat LSU in its tournament opener, seemingly couldn’t miss.

The Bulldogs shot 62.5 percent from the floor and led 38-19 at halftime, with Shawn Jones Jr. finishing off the dominating start with a dunk to beat the buzzer after a rare miss by a teammate. They held Tennessee to a season-low for points in the first half, three fewer than the last time these teams met.

Mississippi State led by as much as 23 midway through the second half. When the Vols got within 60-48 with 10 straight points, Jeffries hit a 3 and then a layup to smother Tennessee’s hopes of a comeback.

“Congratulations to Mississippi State. I thought from the get-go they came out and their plan was really to be aggressive, drive the ball, obviously play inside,” Barnes said. “We got away from really our defense being in gaps, trying to shrink the court. That’s how we play. But we got away from that.”

Southeastern Conference Tournament
At Nashville, Tenn.
March 13
Arkansas 90, Vanderbilt 85
Georgia 64, Missouri 59

March 14
Mississippi State 70, LSU 60
South Carolina 80, Arkansas 66
Texas A&M 80, Ole Miss 71
Florida 85, Georgia 80

March 15
Mississippi State 73, Tennessee 56
Auburn 86, South Carolina 55
6 p.m. SEC Network – Kentucky vs. Texas A&M
8:30 p.m. SEC Network – Alabama vs. Florida

March 16
Noon ESPN – Mississippi State vs. Auburn
2:30 p.m. ESPN – Kentucky-Texas A&M winner vs. Alabama-Florida winner

March 16
Noon ESPN – Championship game