NCAA Men's Basketball

No. 5 Auburn looks to get back on track, visits Mississippi State

Plenty will be on the line Wednesday when No. 5 Auburn and Mississippi State square off for the only time this regular season.

The Tigers (25-4, 13-3 Southeastern Conference) can claim a share of their second regular-season title in five years with a win in Starkville, Miss., where they have won two of the past three contests against the Bulldogs (17-12, 8-8).

Auburn, which owns three straight victories in the series, posted a 78-71 win over Mississippi State in the 2020-21 season finale. That showing resulted in the 600th win for head coach Bruce Pearl.

The Tigers, however, squandered an 11-point lead in the second half and lost their third straight road game, a 67-62 decision against No. 13 Tennessee on Saturday.

"No excuses on the rebounding," said Pearl, whose group was dominated on the boards 54-31. "Their guards and their players were quicker to the ball than we were. That was a real problem for us chasing those 50-50 balls.

"They got 20 more possessions than we did. It's hard to win a game when you give an opponent that many more possessions."

A win Wednesday would keep Pearl's squad at least one game ahead of second-place foes Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee and force at least a tie if the Tigers do not win their season finale at home against South Carolina.

The Razorbacks hold the head-to-head edge over Auburn after their 80-76 overtime win on Feb. 8.

While Auburn is fighting for the conference crown, Mississippi State finds itself in a four-team tie for sixth place.

Along with head coach Ben Howland's Bulldogs, LSU, Florida and South Carolina are knotted in the 6-through-9 positions in the league standings.

In a tough home contest Saturday against Vanderbilt, Mississippi State overcame a two-point halftime deficit to record a 74-69 win.

Big man Tolu Smith, who scored 22 points, keyed a strong inside game and Iverson Molinar added 20 in his best performance since tallying 22 against Alabama on Feb. 16.

Molinar is averaging 18.1 points per game and has scored in double figures every time out this season. Smith averages 13.0 points and 5.8 rebounds per game while Garrison Brooks is posting 10.8 points and a team-high 6.8 boards.

Howland, who coached UCLA to consecutive Final Fours in 2007 and 2008, said his squad has let a couple of potential wins get away. But he feels the Bulldogs have what it takes to enter the conference tournament on a three-game winning streak.

"This league is so good -- I think it's the best league in the country," Howland said. "It's especially top heavy, and we've been right there. We beat Arkansas at home, we were in a one-point lead with five minutes to go against Tennessee. That's what's so frustrating: to be so close with the top teams.

"Hopefully we can get over the hump and beat (Auburn) Wednesday night."

After its home finale, Mississippi State closes out the regular season against host Texas A&M on Saturday.

--Field Level Media

Updated February 28, 2022