Mississippi St. 58, Va. Commonwealth 51
Mar. 15, 1996
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) _ Mississippi State's shooting was bound to get better, but not by much.
Darryl Wilson scored 15 points Thursday night as the Bulldogs survived a miserable shooting slump and beat Virginia Commonwealth 58-51 in the first round of the NCAA Southeast Regional.
Wilson, the Bulldogs' scoring leader for the season, had only three points until the closing minutes, when he scored 12 of their final 16 points.
``I stepped up and made some big shots, but our defense was the turning point of the ball game,'' Wilson said.
``In the second half, we executed well,'' he said.
The only thing that saved Mississippi State (23-7) was its defense, which forced the Rams (24-9) to shoot even worse, limiting them to 31 percent for the game. The victory sent the fifth-seeded Bulldogs into Saturday's second round against either UCLA or Princeton.
``I don't think it was the prettiest win we've ever been involved in, but we'll take it,'' coach Richard Williams said. ``When you get to this time of the year, you don't worry how pretty it is. It's not a beauty contest.''
Mississippi State, which lost to UCLA in the regional semifinals last year, began to pull out of its slump early in the second half.
Leading only 24-20 at the break after hitting 31 percent in the first half, the Bulldogs got four quick baskets and took a 32-22 lead, their biggest of the game.
They still led by nine midway through the period before Bernard Hopkins started a VCU comeback with a free throw, a rebound basket and another free throw. George Byrd then hit one foul shot and Hopkins rebounded Byrd's second attempt for another basket. Ivan Chappell also scored on a rebound to tie it 40-40 with 8:08 to go.
Two minutes later, baskets by Byrd and Hopkins gave the 12th-seeded Rams their last lead at 46-45 before two baskets by Wilson and another by Erick Dampier put Mississippi State ahead for good.
``I'm happy with our players. I don't think it was a lack of effort on our part,'' Williams said. ``Mentally, it was very hard for us to be back at the same level we were last weekend (in a victory over Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference tourney championship).''
A 3-pointer by Wilson made it 54-48. Chappell countered with another 3-pointer with 1:49 to go, and Mississippi State got the final points on two free throws apiece by Whit Hughes and Wilson.
``I was a little concerned he was afraid to shoot,'' Williams said of Wilson. ``He's never had that problem before. He just didn't play well until the end, but he's a guy who with the game on the line we want the ball in his hands.''
The Bulldogs shot just 31 percent in the first half and finished at 41 percent for the game.
Dampier and Dontae Jones added 13 points apiece for Mississippi State. Hopkins led Virginia Commonwealth with 22 points and 11 rebounds.
``The strength of our team is rebounding, second shots and playing great defense. Unfortunately, we were playing a team that had the same strengths,'' VCU coach Sonny Smith said. ``Their defense was so solid in the first half.
``The thing that was discouraging was we got the ball where we wanted it, we got the ball in scoring position.''
Neither team could gain control in the first half, mainly because neither one was hitting many shots.
Struggling barely above 20 percent for most of the opening period, both VCU and Mississippi State suffered long dry spells, missing open layups, slam dunks and uncontested jumpers.
The Bulldogs hit only 4-for-19 before a basket and free throw by Jones tied the game 14-14. Only after Bart Hyche, a reserve guard, came into the game did the Mississippi State shooting improve a bit.
Hyche, a 42 percent shooter for the season, hit two straight 3-pointers, then rebounded his own miss for another basket and a 22-18 Bulldogs lead with under two minutes to go.
``My job is to come in and not make mistakes,'' said Hyche, whose 8 points was more than double his 3.5-point season average. ``I don't have to score. But they did a great job finding me and I hit them.''
Wilson gave Mississippi State its biggest lead of the first half at 24-18, and two free throws by Hopkins with a minute left cut the lead to 24-20 at the break.
VCU shot 22 percent from the field in the first half after hitting only one basket over the final 9:42 of the opening period.
Chappell was the only other Rams player finishing in double figures, scoring 10 points.