NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP)—Rick Stansbury and his Mississippi State Bulldogs have their sights set on a Southeastern Conference regular-season title, and nothing less will do.
Lawrence Roberts scored 18 points and grabbed 14 rebounds, and No. 7 Mississippi State held off Vanderbilt 72-69 Saturday night to remain perfect away from home this season and a game ahead of Kentucky in the race for the SEC title.
The Bulldogs (23-2, 12-2) did not cut down any nets last week after clinching a second consecutive SEC Western Division title.
“That’s not our goal,” Stansbury said. “It’s a two-horse race between us and Kentucky, and we needed to win another road game to put some pressure on them. We looked at this as our SEC championship game.”
The Bulldogs strengthened their chances for their first SEC regular-season championship since 1990-91, which they shared with LSU, by improving to 11-0 on the road, including 7-0 in league play.
They play at home against Auburn before visiting Alabama on March 6, while Kentucky visits LSU on Sunday and South Carolina on Wednesday before concluding at home against Florida. Obviously, winning the school’s first outright regular-season title since 1962-63 would be even better.
“Winning the SEC is our goal right now,” Roberts said. “We want to do a good job closing out.”
Senior guard Timmy Bowers said: “We have the SEC in our hands. It’s in our path right now.”
But it wasn’t easy against Vanderbilt (18-7, 7-7), which had won three straight and five of seven.
Mississippi State has won seven SEC games by double digits this season, but the Bulldogs never led by more than six Saturday night until the final seconds. They shot 5-of-8 at the foul line in the final 40.6 seconds before Vandy gave the Bulldogs one last scare.
Bowers hit two free throws for Mississippi State to make it 72-66 before Vanderbilt’s Matt Freije made his first free throw with 6.1 seconds to go, then missed his second on purpose. Julian Terrell scored for Vandy to make it 72-69 with 2.3 seconds remaining.
Mississippi State lost a long inbound pass to Winsome Frazier out of bounds, leaving Vandy 0.7 seconds to try to tie it. Jason Holwerda tossed the ball over 7-foot Marcus Campbell, but none of the Commodores could get a hand on the ball before the buzzer.
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings called it a hard-fought game.
“They’re very athletic. We missed a lot of shots right around the goal because of their athleticism. The killer for us was their 13 offensive rebounds in the second half. We have got to do better than that,” Stallings said.
Roberts shot only 4-of-13 from the floor, but he was 9-of-13 at the line with 11 of his rebounds coming in the second half. Bowers had 16 points, Frazier added 15 and Branden Vincent scored 12.
Freije, the SEC’s preseason player of the year, led Vanderbilt with 26 points but had only nine in the second half with Vincent guarding him. Mario Moore added 10.
Freije credited the Bulldogs’ zone defense with bothering his team in the second half.
“At times, we were just too aggressive. We played hard, but didn’t execute as well as we could,” Freije said.
The Commodores outshot Mississippi State by the slimmest of margins (41.4 percent to 40.4 percent), but the Bulldogs dominated the boards 45-32. They also made more free throws (19-of-31) than Vandy attempted (12-of-18).
The two halves couldn’t have been more different.
Mississippi State led 43-42 after a first half in which both teams shot at least 50 percent from the floor and 60 percent from 3-point range in a fast-paced half that featured 14 3s. Vandy went 8-of-12 from 3-point range in the half.
“We took their best shot from 3 in the first half and were still winning,” Stansbury said. “Our ability to push caused some fatigue, and that showed up in the shooting in the second half.”
Both teams went cold in the second half. The Bulldogs missed five of their first six shots to start the half, while Vandy hit only one of seven. They combined to make just three field goals through the first eight minutes, and Vincent’s jumper, Mississippi State’s second field goal of the half, put the Bulldogs up 53-48 with 11:45 to go.