STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP)—Having already blown one 17-point lead to Alabama this season, Mississippi State wasn’t about to let it happen again.
Mario Austin scored 14 points, including Mississippi State’s only basket in the last 7:35, as the 20th-ranked Bulldogs withstood a late charge and beat the Crimson Tide 59-55 on Wednesday night.
With Auburn losing at LSU, the Bulldogs (18-6, 8-5) moved into sole possession of first place in the Southeastern Conference West
Erwin Dudley scored 15 of his 17 points in the second half for the Crimson Tide (15-9, 5-8), which trailed by 17 after Winsome Frazier hit a 3-pointer with 7:35 left.
The Bulldogs led by 17 points in the first half of the first meeting with Alabama before losing in overtime 68-62. For a while, it looked like it might happen again as the Tide pulled within three with just under two minutes left.
This time, the Bulldogs kept their poise and snuffed out the Tide’s rally.
“We learned so much from that game in Tuscaloosa,” said Austin, who turned 21 Wednesday. “We knew coming down the stretch we’d have guys step up.”
A change of venue also helped the Bulldogs.
“This time around we were playing in Starkville,” said Derrick Zimmerman, who had eight points and six assists. “That probably was the difference.”
Ontario Harper scored 12 and Timmy Bowers 11, including three free throws in the final minute for Mississippi State.
Dudley was Alabama’s only offense to start the second half.
The preseason All-American scored the Crimson Tide’s first 13 points, showing off an assortment of moves—drop step, jump hook, baseline drive and soft short jumper.
“We wanted to go in to him and I thought we did a pretty good job of getting him the basketball and he did a good of taking care of it,” Alabama coach Mark Gottfried said.
But Dudley alone couldn’t keep pace with the Bulldogs, who were clamping down on the rest of the Tide and getting offense from all sources.
Harper hit 3-pointers from each corner 33 seconds apart to put Mississippi State up 43-33 with 13:02 left.
Nearly 12 minutes went by before someone other than Dudley scored for Alabama. Mo Williams broke the drought with a layup on the break to make it 51-37 with 8:02 left.
But Frazier came right back with a 3 and the Bulldogs had their largest lead, 54-37.
Alabama got back-to-back 3s by Antoine Pettway and Earnest Shelton to cut the lead to 54-43 with 6:24 left and start a run.
Mississippi State went more than six minutes without scoring. Kennedy Winston’s 3-pointer completed a 14-0 surge that pulled Alabama to 54-51 with 1:40 left.
But that turned out to be the Crimson Tide’s last gasp.
The Bulldogs snapped their dry spell when Austin got loose for two inside to make it 56-51 with 1:10 left. Bowers made a nice bounce pass to the post to help Austin get free.
Williams, the Tide’s leading scorer, had another lackluster performance in his home state with 10 points on 4-for-10 shooting. The sophomore from Jackson has averaged only eight points in four games in Mississippi—two at Mississippi State and two at Mississippi—and Alabama has lost all four.
“I don’t know. Maybe he’s pressing a little bit. Nobody really knows that,” Gottfried said.
Alabama, once the top-ranked team in the country, won at Tennessee in its last game, but was unable to win consecutive games in SEC play for the first time.
“I believe right now we’ll play in the NCAA tournament,” Gottfried said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do and a short time to do it in. I actually believe we’re playing some pretty good basketball right now.”
The Bulldogs led 24-22 after a rugged first half dominated by tight defense. Neither team shot over 35 percent and Mississippi State’s top three scorers— Austin, Bowers and Michael Ignerski—combined to shoot 4-for-18 from the field.
The Crimson Tide, meanwhile, managed just one field goal in the last nine minutes of the first half.