ATLANTA (Ticker) -- Overlooked for most of the season, Mississippi State entered the Southeastern Conference tournament unranked. In the end, the Bulldogs were the only team standing.
Mario Austin scored 15 points and Michal Ignerski and Derrick Zimmerman added 13 apiece as Mississippi State held off eighth-ranked Alabama, 61-58, to claim just the second SEC tournament title in school history.
Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury was asked why he thought his club was not ranked.
"Turn on the computer and look at the RPI," he said. "It was ninth going in. I can't explain it (the non-ranking). That's a good question, but it's something we haven't worried about. You win basketball games and things take care of themselves." The Bulldogs (26-7) also tied a school record for wins, set in 1995-96, when they won their other SEC crown and reached the Final Four.
"We knew it was going to be tough coming in and we gutted it out until the end," said Austin, the tournament's Most Valuable Player. "It couldn't be any sweeter. I just wanted to go in the game and make it a hard fight. I thought I did that today." Mississippi State will take an eight-game winning streak into the NCAA Tournament. The key to the Bulldogs' late surge has been defense as they are allowing an average of only 57 points per game during the winning streak.
"It (SEC tournament) was a national stage to showcase who our team was," Stansbury added. "Anytime you win a tournament in the best league in the game, I don't know what else you need to earn respect." Mississippi State took two of three from Alabama this season, but beat the Crimson Tide for only the second time in eight SEC Tournament meetings. Its previous tournament win came in 1933, when the Bulldogs posted a 30-25 win, which happened to be Sunday's halftime score.
"Coming into the season, no one expected anything from us," Zimmerman said. "Everyone picked us last (in the SEC polls)." Erwin Dudley, the SEC Player of the Year, scored 18 points and Rod Grizzard added 17 for the Crimson Tide, who were seeking their first SEC title since 1991, when they capped a run of three straight championships.
"They made some plays they needed to make at the end," Alabama coach Mark Gottfried said. "That was the difference. We came up about a play short, one play short." Mississippi State squandered a 10-point first half advantage as Alabama (26-7) rallied to take a 52-50 lead on Terrance Meade's two foul shots with 4:42 remaining.
But after Ignerski hit 1-of-2 from the line, Timmy Bowers and Zimmerman drilled consecutive 3-pointers, giving the Bulldogs a 57-52 lead with 2:42 remaining.
After Zimmerman's layup gave Mississippi State a 59-54 lead, Alabama suffered a blow when Dudley hit his head on the ground was driving to the basket with 1:26 left. The game was briefly delayed as medical personnel attended to Dudley, who was able to walk off the court unassisted and later returned.
"My neck popped a little bit," he said. "It hurt for a while, then it stopped," Meade, who scored 17 points, came off the bench to hit both free throws and Grizzard made two more, bringing Alabama within 59-58 with 49 seconds left.
The Crimson Tide had a golden chance after Zimmerman missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 24 seconds left. But Alabama ran a disorganized possession and was unable to get off a good shot as freshman Maurice Williams launched a 25-footer that caromed off the front of the rim.
"The shot he took, I felt was a desperation shot," said Zimmerman, who was guarding Williams. "He was pretty deep on the shot. I gave him that shot at 27 feet." Following two foul shots by Michael Gholar with 5.3 seconds left, the Crimson Tide were unable to get off a shot on their final possession as Williams dribbled the ball off his foot at the buzzer.
"We didn't execute as he should have," Grizzard said.
"They just made the big plays and we didn't," Dudley added.
Mississippi State built a 30-20 lead on Austin's two free throws with 4:28 left in the first half. But Grizzard scored the final five points of the half, bringing Alabama within 30-25 at the intermission.
The Crimson Tide tied the contest, 38-38, on Williams' 3-pointer with 15:23 remaining. Neither team led by more than five thereafter.
The loss may have cost Alabama a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. It also prevented Gottfried, a member of the Crimson Tide's 1987 SEC championship team, from winning league titles as a player and coach.