STARKVILLE, MISSISSIPPI (TICKER)—Mario Austin celebrated his 21st birthday by helping Mississippi State avoid a catastrophic repeat against Alabama.
Austin had a key basket and pair of rebounds down the stretch as the 20th-ranked Bulldogs moved into first place in the West Division of the Southeastern Conference with a 59-55 victory.
Mississippi State (18-6, 8-5 SEC West) suffered a disappointing 68-62 overtime loss at Alabama on January 15, blowing a 17-point lead. The stage was set for another collapse after a 3-pointer by Winsome Frazier opened a 54-37 lead for the Bulldogs, who then went almost seven minutes without a point.
“We didn’t help that situation any,” Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said. “We just missed some easy jump shots that you’ve got to take because they were collapsing on top of Mario.”
Alabama (15-9, 5-8) hit four 3-pointers and scored 14 straight points, pulling within 54-51 on a shot from beyond the arc by freshman Kennedy Winston with 1:41 remaining.
On the next possession, Austin took a bounce pass from Timmy Bowers and scored over Winston to end Mississippi State’s drought. The Crimson Tide’s Earnest Shelton missed a 3-pointer on the other end, and Austin came up with the rebound in traffic.
“We just wanted to get a win,” Austin said. “I wasn’t going to get all caught up in the fact that it’s my birthday. I wanted to come in here and do what I needed to do for my team and hopefully get a win.”
The Bulldogs made 3-of-6 foul shots to seal the win. Austin also had another rebound and blocked a shot by Erwin Dudley in the final 35 seconds.
Mississippi State moved one game ahead of Auburn for the top spot in the SEC West.
Alabama entered with some confidence after winning two of three games and was in search of a marquee road victory to bolster its case for an NCAA Tournament at-large berth. The Crimson Tide turned in a strong effort, but saw their road record drop to 1-7.
“It was a tough game for us,” Alabama coach Mark Gottfried said. “I’m proud of our guys. I thought they played really hard. They’re disappointed we didn’t get it done.”
Austin scored 14 points and Ontario Harper added 12 for Mississippi State, which survived its poor 32 percent (9-of-28) shooting in the first half. The Bulldogs used stifling defense to force 19 turnovers, which they converted into 21 points.
The Crimson Tide actually got off to a fast start and Winston’s jumper provided a 10-5 lead nearly four minutes into the game. Mississippi State answered with eight straight points and held Alabama to just three baskets the rest of the half and took a 24-22 lead into halftime.
“We wanted to go out and play defense,” Bulldogs guard Winsome Frazier said. “We knew our offense would come.”
Alabama’s Erwin Dudley scored to cut his team’s deficit to 37-33 before Mississippi State used a 14-2 tear to take control. Harper started it with a pair of 3-pointers and dunked off a feed from Frazier to end it for a 51-35 advantage.
Frazier’s 3-pointer opened up a 54-37 advantage before things got tight for the Bulldogs.
“This was a lot like when we went there and got up big early in the game, ” Mississippi State guard Derrick Zimmerman said. “This time we were playing in Starkville and that was a big factor for us tonight.”
Dudley led Alabama with 15 of his 17 points in the second half, showing his form from last season in which he was SEC Player of the Year. He made 8-of-14 shots and grabbed seven rebounds to win his head-to-head battle with Austin.
“He played so hard,” Gottfried said. “I thought he played with a lot of heart. Also, he’s guarding Mario Austin on the other end. He’s got his hands full on both ends of the court.”
Winston scored 11 points and Mo Williams netted 10 for Alabama, which made just 5-of-15 shots from beyond the arc.