Bulldogs bounce Tigers from SEC Tournament

Thge Lady Tigers were bounced from the SEC tourney in the opening game.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — With 2.1 seconds to go, down by 2 and with any realistic shot at making the NCAA Regional it was hosting on the line, Auburn got the ball to exactly who it wanted to take the last shot.

Alli Smalley, the Tigers’ only senior and one of Auburn’s top scorers of all time, fought through screens, gained an inch on the two Mississippi State defenders that were trailing her, caught the inbounds pass and lofted a 15-footer from the baseline.

But the shot drew rim and caromed off, leaving Smalley to slam her hand on the Bridgestone Arena court in frustration and leaving the Tigers with a surprising 49-47 loss to the Bulldogs in the first round of the SEC Tournament on Thursday night.

“That was exactly the look we wanted to get,” Smalley said. “Had some daylight in the corner — I was a little bit behind the backboard — but it’s a shot I should have hit.

“It’s a tough break.”

Mississippi State (13-16), the 11-seed, ripped off an 18-5 run to overcome an 11-point Auburn (15-15) lead in the second half, capped off by a Diamber Johnson crossover and jumper to put the Bulldogs ahead 48-46 with 1:20 to go.

Johnson scored 13 of the Bulldogs’ points during their run, including 10 in a row, and gave them their first lead of the game since the 17:07 mark of the first half.

The Bulldogs’ junior scored a team-high 16, all of them coming in the second half.

“We got on Diamber pretty hard relative to the start,” Bulldogs coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said. “‘You’re going to have to stick your nose in there. You’re going to have to take some shots and not look to pass first.’

“And that aggressiveness is going to be contagious for a basketball team.”

Chantel Hilliard, who notched her first career double-double with a career-high 18 points and 11 rebounds, hit a free throw to cut the Bulldogs’ lead to 49-47 with 14 seconds left, but missed the second, with Smalley pulling down the rebound and getting a timeout with 8.4 seconds to go.

The sixth-seeded Tigers went back to Hilliard inside, but Catina Bett blocked her shot, and Auburn retained possession out of bounds under its hoop with 2.1 seconds to go.

Smalley’s look — a tough one from the baseline in the right corner — banked off the far side of the rim and out, ending Auburn’s SEC Tournament run before it got started.

“I have a tremendous amount of confidence with the ball in Alli’s hands,” Tigers coach Nell Fortner said. “She’s a first-team, All-SEC player, and this is her senior year. She played hard tonight.”

Both teams struggled mightily to score out of the gate, with a Mary Kathryn Govero jumper serving as the only points of the first 6 minutes.

Parrisha Simmons broke the Tigers’ scoreless drought with a free throw with 13:38 to go in the first half, and Hilliard knocked in Auburn’s first shot about 2 minutes later.

Simmons also gave the Tigers a bit of separation at the end of the half with a 3-point play on a fastbreak layup, and Auburn went into the half up 22-15.

Govero brought the Bulldogs within 29-27 with a jumper at the 15:30 mark, but two Smalley buckets and three more from Hilliard spurred a 10-1 run for the Tigers over the next 4:20 to give them a 39-28 lead with 10:30 to go.

Auburn held a 41-30 lead with 9:48 left before the Bulldogs made their run.

“Mississippi State just came out and executed a lot better than we did,” Smalley said. “We had a lot of breakdowns defensively, we weren’t knocking down shots, and we didn’t play with the energy we needed to win a game in the SEC Tournament.”

Smalley scored 14, and Govero and Bett added 15 and 10, respectively, for the Bulldogs.

Auburn was the only lower seed to lose on the tournament’s first day, and Mississippi State moves on to play 3-seed Vanderbilt tonight at 9 p.m.

The Tigers are still in good standing for a Women’s NIT berth, but their chance at the NCAA Tournament looks all but shot.

Fortner said she hasn’t had a chance to think about the postseason yet. Not with the disappointment of Thursday’s loss so fresh.

“No question, it’s disappointing to lose, especially when you have a senior as good as Alli Smalley,” Fortner said. “What a tremendous career she’s had at Auburn, and I’m just so proud of her. I hate that we lost this first game, because I felt like she played her tail off tonight.

“Like a senior does.”

dmorrison@oanow.com | 737-2568

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