STARKVILLE, MISSISSIPPI (TICKER)—Mississippi State did not leave anything to chance with its first Southeastern Conference West Division title in seven years on the line.
Derrick Zimmerman scored 15 points and Timmy Bowers added 14 as the 21st-ranked Bulldogs claimed their first conference crown in seven years with a 67-45 rout of Auburn in the regular-season finale for both schools.
The Bulldogs (19-8, 9-7 SEC West) owned a 33-17 halftime lead before cruising to their fifth straight victory over the Tigers. They captured their first division title since taking two in a row in the 1994-95 and 1995-96 seasons.
“I’m very proud of my team. No one back in January would give this team a chance to be playing for the Western Division championship today, much less win it,” Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said of his team’s three-game losing streak to begin SEC play. “This team bought into and believed that it’s not a three- or four-game season, it’s a 16-game season.
“To our kids’ credit, they’ve withstood the highs and survived the lows better than anybody else in the West and put themselves in position today to win this championship. There was no question after the tip who was going to win this basketball game.”
“We were always focused on one game at a time,” he said. “When we got down 0-3, we wanted to stay together. A lot of times when teams get down early in conference play, they can pick themselves apart by guys nagging each other. We just came together and pushed ourselves to play harder and push each other to play harder.”
Mississippi State will have the top seed out of the West and a first-round bye in the conference tournament.
On senior day at Humphrey Coliseum, Zimmerman - who also dished out eight assists - matched a school record by playing his 123rd career game.
“I’ve been here for four years and it’s been a long four years,” said Zimmerman, who is three wins shy of joining former MSU forward Jay Walton as the winningest player in the program’s 91-year history. “The fans were great. I felt they appreciated everything I’ve given to Mississippi State and helping to get this program back to what it was in 1995-96.”
Stansbury brought Zimmerman back into the game with two minutes left to soak in the crowd’s cheers a second time.
“He’s a special player,” Stansbury said. “He’s been here for four years and was in my first recruiting class as a head coach. Anyone who’s watched him play over four years knows there’s not many more exciting guys, point guards who can run, jump and dunk with the quickness he can. I just want to make sure the fans had one more chance to send him off because he deserves it.”
Zimmerman shot 6-of-11 from the field, converting 3-of-6 3-pointers, and came up with two steals and two blocks.
“A lot of people don’t know this, but I shoot a lot of jump shots,” Zimmerman said. “I know that my ability to jump up and knock down some shots is going to make this team next-to-impossible to beat. I knew that if their zone backed off me, I was going to take the shot. I just wanted to jump up and knock it down.”
Mississippi State’s other senior starter, Michal Ignerski, contributed 12 points.
“You can’t understand how this feels,” the Polish forward said. “We were pumped for this game and our goal from the start was to win. We knew we had to come out and play hard, and we did. It’s a great feeling.”
Kyle Davis and Marquis Daniels scored 14 points apiece for Auburn (19-9, 8-8), which lost for the eighth time in the last 12 games. The Tigers, who are on the bubble for an NCAA Tournament bid, failed to secure the eighth 20-win season in school history.
“Mississippi State certainly played a great game,” Auburn coach Cliff Ellis said. “When it came to making shots, I thought Derrick Zimmerman was really the key player to give them the momentum.”
Mississippi State jumped out to a 20-6 lead in the opening eight minutes as Zimmerman scored 10 points and Bowers put in five.
“Today there was little doubt who was the best team on the floor,” Stansbury said. “Our goal today was not to worry about the SEC tournament or worry about getting momentum. Our goal today was to come out and do what we said we were doing to do from day one, and that was to win the Western Division championship.”
Lewis Monroe drained a 3-pointer to get Auburn within 20-11 with 9:37 remaining in the half, but Ignerski answered with a 3-pointer and Bowers and Ontario Harper made layups as the Bulldogs’ lead never dipped below 12 points again.
The Tigers pulled to 37-24 on a jumper by Daniels with 16:46 left in the second half before Mississippi State went on a 15-0 run to take its largest lead, 52-24.
Harper finished with nine points and Mario Austin contributed eight and seven rebounds for the Bulldogs, who shot 48 percent (27-of-56) from the field, including 8-of-21 (38 percent) from 3-point range.
Davis pulled down nine rebounds and Marco Killingsworth chipped in seven points for the Tigers, who shot 36 percent (20-of-55) and were held below 50 points for only the second time this season - also to Mississippi State.
“From an offensive standpoint, their defense never allowed us to have a gap,” Ellis said. “We struggled. They were a very physical team and I didn’t think we stood up to the physical nature of this basketball game the way we needed to.”