STARKVILLE — In a season filled with ever evolving lows, Mississippi State narrowly avoided watching its season implode in spectacular fashion Tuesday evening before a sparsely populated Humphrey Coliseum crowd.
Greeted with apathy from a fan base that has celebrated success for the better part of a decade, MSU (9-7, 4-6 SEC) gutted out an ugly 81-68 win over an Auburn team that’s now riding a 13-game Southeastern Conference losing streak for its first win since Jan. 10.
“I just feel like we can relax and get back to us,” junior guard Myah Taylor said. “I think we knew what was at stake tonight and we just needed a win.”
Hastened with a staunch size-disadvantage, Auburn (8-16, 0-13 SEC) had few, if any, answers to stop junior forward Jessika Carter throughout the game’s opening 20 minutes. Finding her spots in the paint possession after possession, Carter recorded 10 points and five rebounds in the first two frames to pace the Bulldog offense.
Coming off the bench for the first time since a home loss to South Carolina on Jan. 28, Aliyah Matharu also drained a pair of second quarter 3-pointers to keep MSU within striking distance.
But for what good Carter and Matharu afforded, MSU’s sloppy guard play mitigated its effectiveness. Totaling 12 first half turnovers, the Bulldogs’ backcourt accounted for eight of them compared to just eight assists.
Auburn guard Honesty Scott-Grayson took full advantage of MSU’s laissez faire offensive approach, draining six of her 10 attempts for a 16-point first half effort.
Trailing by six exiting the half, MSU played with a slightly renewed, albeit still sloppy, sense of purpose. After an eight-point first half, sophomore forward Rickea Jackson recorded her most complete outing in months. Jackson, who’s struggled with slow starts throughout MSU’s five game losing streak, fought through contact to finish at the rim, while flashing the dangerous mid-range jumper that makes her such a matchup problem nightly en route to a 20-point night.
“I feel like we were just getting each other going mentally,” she said.”My teammates were talking to me and telling me the things I needed to do to convert.”
With Jackson leading the way, the Bulldogs outscored the visiting Tigers 45-26 over the game’s final 20 minutes in a game MSU could ill afford to drop as it continues to narrowly keep its head above water in the race for an NCAA Tournament berth.
As of Tuesday morning, ESPN bracketologist Charlie Creme still listed the Bulldogs as a No. 7 seed in a hypothetical 64-team bracket. A loss to the Tigers, who ranked No. 117 in the latest NET rankings, would’ve proved a likely death knell for a team that’s hovered around .500 for the bulk of the past month-plus and has looked far from impressive in the few games it’s actually played.
Games at LSU (No. 59) and home against Missouri (No. 40) give the Bulldogs a handful of chances to boost their current NET ranking of 38, but a Thursday night loss to the Baton Rouge-based Tigers, who Creme listed as one of his next four teams out, might put MSU in a particularly bubbly situation heading into its season finale against Missouri.
For now, MSU managed to narrowly remain in the NCAA Tournament picture with a grisly win over a team that had lost each of its last 13 games by an average 14.5 points. But with games against LSU and Missouri on the ledger over the next four days and at least one game in the impending SEC Tournament scheduled for next week, the Bulldogs remain in as precarious a position as they were entering Tuesday night’s affair.
“I feel like this is a starting point for us,” Taylor said. “We still have a long way to go, but it has to start somewhere and I think it started tonight.”
Ben Portnoy reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @bportnoy15.
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