Wildcats put away State, finish league with perfect record

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 17, 2003

NEW ORLEANS &045; The big Bulldog did not hunt Sunday. With a Southeastern Conference Tournament championship on the line Mississippi State’s 6-foot-9 junior forward Mario Austin looked more like a pup struggling to open his eyelids than the junkyard dog that has led the pack during most of the 2002-03 year.

Austin, who has said he will return to Starkville for his final season, was shut out in the final 20 minutes until 44.4 seconds remained to finish in single digits for just the fifth time this season with nine points &045; well below his season average of 15.8.

In the process of Kentucky’s Marquise Estill and Chuck Hayes containing State’s top canine, the Wildcats won their fourth tourney title under head coach Tubby Smith, nine of the last 12 and their 24th overall with a 64-57 come-from-behind victory in the Louisiana Superdome.

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The ‘Cats (29-3), who extended the nation’s longest winning streak to 23, finished a perfect 19-0 against SEC competition in the regular and postseason to become the first team since the 1952 Kentucky squad to sweep through the league.

&uot;(Estill) did an excellent job on Austin today, which he has done against opponents’ big men all year long,&uot; said Smith, who is now 4-1 in tourney finals. &uot;Marquise is a tough target to shoot over. We put a lot of pressure on Mario Austin to guard Marquise, as well.&uot;

State, who trailed by as many as nine in the second half, cut its deficit to a single point, 56-55, when sophomore Winsome Frazier buried a 3-pointer with 2:40 to play. Ninety seconds later Austin had a chance to put State up one but missed a pair of free throws.

Kentucky, obviously unfazed by Austin’s 260-pound frame, answered by attacking the big man with Estill and Hayes reeling of the next four points to push the Wildcats lead back up to five.

Austin’s putback with less than a minute remaining cut the margin to three, 60-57, but that was as close as the SEC Western Division champs got.

&uot;If it wasn’t for the help of my teammates, it would have been a long night for me against Austin,&uot; said Estill, who finished with 13 points and nine rebounds on his way to capturing All-Tournament team honors.

Wildcat Keith Bogans, whose 22 points led all scorers and hand-wrapped the tourney’s Most Valuable Player award, quickly put Kentucky ahead 35-33 when he buried his third 3-pointer of the game and sank two free throws in less than 30 seconds early on in the second half after State held a 31-30 halftime margin.

Then the veteran from DeMatha Catholic School in the Washington D.C. metro area sank a jumper with 14:14 to go to put the Wildcats up five, 42-37.

&uot;I told coach before the season I wanted to do whatever it took to get this team a championship,&uot; Bogans said. &uot;And the way we finished &045; to go undefeated &045; is extra special.&uot;

Despite the loss State (21-9), who was led by Timmy Bowers’ 13 points, is in good shape seeding-wise and head coach Rick Stansbury was proud of the way his boys competed.

&uot;We went in today believing we could win this championship. The kids fought and fought the best team in the country late into the game,&uot; he said. &uot;I would love to get another shot for a national championship against Kentucky. I’m sure they’ll keep the reservations down here. They may just hold on to their room keys.&uot;

Bowers and Derrick Zimmerman joined Estill, Bogans and LSU’s Ronald Dupree to round out the All-Tournament team.