STARKVILLE — Tyson Cunningham had the most significant two-minute stretch of his college basketball career Wednesday night.
The Columbus native scored five straight points and then took a vicious charge to the delight of 7,754 Humphrey Coliseum fans. The instant momentum lift was exactly what Mississippi State needed in its 82-74 victory over Auburn.
“Coach is always telling me to be ready no matter what,” Cunningham said. “I truly was just in the right spots and at the right time. All I wanted to do was help my team get this win. That’s my role.”
MSU coach Rick Ray began his post-game media conference by addressing the fact the Bulldogs (13-5, 3-2 in Southeastern Conference) had just seven scholarship players in the game but it was a walk-on that provided the game-saving moments. Cunningham, who three years ago was on the practice squad for the MSU women’s basketball team, gave MSU exactly what this program has been striving for since Ray took the job last year: leadership.
“When you work like Tyson does all the time, you’re going to be able to come into pressurized situations and have success,” Ray said.
In just his five minutes of game action, Cunningham made a three-pointer, took a charge, helped on the boards and made proper inbound passes against Auburn’s trapping scheme. The two-year starter at Columbus was the comfort MSU needed for its first two-game SEC winning streak in 376 days.
“In the moment of the game, you have to do whatever it take to get the win,” Cunningham said. “I had the energy when I hit my shot tonight and it just carried over into the rest of my play.”
When Cunningham checked into the game with 5 minutes, 8 seconds remaining, Auburn coach Tony Barbee was more than content to let the walk-on have wide open looks and suddenly Cunningham was thrusted into the spotlight of a do-or-die moment. After breaking the Tigers 2-2-1 full court look, Cunningham took aim at a deep three-point shot that hit nothing but the bottom of the net.
“For Tyson to come in after not playing all that time and then make contributions really speaks volumes about him as a person and him being prepared,” Ray said. “Tyson is the one guy on our team that is always in the gym and always working on his game, working on his shot.”
Cunningham later said he thought the shot clock was winding down with the amount of encouragement he received from the MSU bench to shoot the wide open look. This was not a pity gesture but one of teammates relying on a veteran to make a big shot in the crucial moments of a conference game.
“I heard (MSU leading scorer Craig Sword) yelling ‘shoot it, shoot it, shoot it’ and I thought the shot clock was winding down,” Cunningham said with a smile. “I don’t think I should say this but I didn’t even know how wide open I was but I just pulled it. I was so grateful the ball went in.”
While Ray admitted nobody on this MSU team has the green light to shoot whenever they please, the Bulldogs second-year coach thought Cunningham’s only shot attempt of the evening was perfectly timed and in the flow of the offense. In short, it was a play a senior leader should make at that moment regardless of minutes played or scholarship status.
“Tyson knows what he’s doing,” Ray said. “He knows the scouting report, he knows how to rotate weak side and so the biggest thing is his knowledge of the game and knowledge of what’s coming next.”
This three-pointer followed two free throws that Cunningham hit perfectly after the Tigers (8-8, 0-5) fouled him on a fall-away three-pointer. The five points surpassed Cunningham’s point total for the entire month of January.
“I was telling Tyson in the huddle how big a play that three-pointer and charge was,” MSU junior forward Roquez Johnson said. “He brought a lot of energy to the crowd and to the team. We feed off that energy tonight.”
Johnson led MSU with 18 points, most of which came from the foul line, after sophomore center Gavin Ware had to sit again due to foul trouble. The Tigers 2-3 zone defense was not stopping Johnson from providing most of MSU’s offensive execution in the paint.
“They weren’t very physical and the coaches were yelling that we needed to keep feeding the post and that kept working,” Johnson said.
Cunningham was the highlight of a MSU bench that outscored Auburn 28-0 and dramatically made up for the fact MSU’s two leading scorers (Craig Sword and Gavin Ware) combined for just 10 points.
“We had to really dig in and let each other know that we’re in this game still,” Cunningham said. “Coach has really been on us about dealing with both success and adversity and I think we did that well tonight.”
Wednesday night marked the sixth straight victory at home for MSU and made it 13 of 14 wins against Auburn in Starkville.
“We’re in here every day in practice and we feel comfortable here at home when we get our shot up and open here,” MSU senior forward Colin Borchert said. Borchert, a East Mississippi Community College transfer, provided 17 points on 3 of 7 from beyond the the 3-point arc.
MSU returns to action Saturday at Ole Miss. The Bulldogs and Rebels tip at 3 p.m., and the game will be regionally telecast by The SEC Network.
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.
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