TAMPA, Fla., - Mississippi State capped off one of the most impressive runs through the Southeastern Conference Tournament with a championship and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
The Bulldogs reeled off four wins in consecutive days with the final victory coming Sunday afternoon 64-61 over Tennessee to claim their fourth conference tournament title.
"I'm just proud for our kids," said MSU head coach Rick Stansbury. "We backed in here the hard way. Our team has been playing well. We had some setbacks during the season and never gave up. We kept believing and because of that we are SEC Champions."
MSU (23-12) shot 36.2-percent from the floor and made just 7-of-28 from behind the arc but found a way to get things done from the free throw line hitting 23 from the charity stripe.
Phil Turner led the Bulldogs with his double-double performance. Turner scored 12 points on 2-of-5 shooting from the floor, all from downtown, and grabbed 10 rebounds.
"We saw what we wanted and everybody that played today went after the same goal," Turner said. "There was not any 'I's' our there."
Barry Stewart and Ravern Johnson added 11 points each. Stewart was also named to the All-Tournament team and made 8-of-9 of his free throw attempts.
Jarvis Varnado was named the SEC Tournament Most Valuable Player after his 10 points, seven rebound and six block effort against the Volunteers.
"It's just a blessing," Varnado said of being named the MVP. "I thank God for it. I never thought I'd be sitting here with an SEC Championship and an MVP."
State began the game with a flurry building a seven point lead in the first 3:30 of the game. But Tennessee rallied back and tied things up 36-36 on a Tyler Smith 3-pointer at the buzzer to close the first half.
The two teams continued to go back and forth right until the end. During the second half the lead changed hands eight times and was tied twice.
Mississippi State took the lead for good when Turner drained a deep trey with 1:32 to put his team ahead 59-57.
The Bulldogs were finally crowned champions after the most unusual final minute as you will see.
Wayne Chism drained a trey with 55 seconds left to pull Tennessee within one point. Stewart was fouled on the ensuing possession and made 1-of-2 from the line giving the Bulldogs a 62-60 edge with 23 seconds remaining.
The Vols J.P. Prince grabbed the rebound and raced upcourt with time winding down. He was fouled by Stewart and sent to the line. He also made the front end of a one-and-one but the rebound went out of bounds and Tennessee maintained possession with nine seconds left.
The Bulldogs defending the inbounds play and Tennessee was whistled for a five-second violation turning the ball back over to MSU.
Bulldog point guard Dee Bost then turned the ball right back over to Tennessee on the inbounds play. But he made up for his mistake by tipping the inbounds pass that Turner snagged.
Turner was promptly fouled by Smith and he knocked down both free throws and iced the game for State with eight seconds remaining.
The desperation 3-pointer by Cameron Tatum did not go and Stewart skied for the final rebound to clinch the victory.
"During that last 22 seconds, I can promise you we didn't lose no TV viewers either," Stansbury said. "We made it interesting."
The Volunteers shot 29-percent from the floor and converted just 8-of-27 from downtown.
"We forced a lot of things," said Vols head coach Bruce Pearl. "You want it so bad. You want it so bad that you revert back to trying to do too much. Tyler tried to do too much, J.P. tried to do too much and Wayne (Chism ) tried to do too much. Those are our three best players. You just force the action a little bit. When you force the action, you force it right into the teeth of Mississippi State's defense."
Chism led all scorers with 15 points on 5-of-17 shooting including 2-of-9 from behind the arc. The childhood adversary of Varnado in Tennessee came out on the losing end on the biggest stage for their matchup thus far.
"Me and Varnado have been going at it since we were little," Chism said. "We finally played each other on the big stage and we both played our best. He came out with a good championship. He played hard to win it. I tried to match it but he was a handle down inside and he altered a bunch of shots. That's what he is good at and he did a great job at it."
Prince finished with 14 points while Smith added 12 points in the loss which dropped the Volunteers to 21-12 on the year.
Tennessee did win the rebounding war 47-39 but went to the free throw line 13 fewer times than the Bulldogs and converted 10 fewer points from the charity stripe.
Mississippi State now sets its sights on the NCAA Tournament after earning the automatic bid as the SEC Tournament Champion.
"The only thing I know is we don't have to sit here and worry about being on a bubble," Stansbury said. "We busted that bubble so that's all that matters. We're happy to be part of the 64 teams."