- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- John Calipari was lobbying for them. So were the Kentucky players.
Freshman guard John Wall called the Mississippi State Bulldogs one of the five best teams the Wildcats have played this season. He raved about Mississippi State senior forward Jarvis Varnado, calling him the best defensive presence in the country.
The No. 2-ranked Wildcats were genuinely impressed.
But unless there’s a surprise on the NCAA tournament Selection Show later Sunday, it doesn’t sound like Bulldogs’ resume is going to be impressive enough.
They played their hearts out and stood toe-to-toe Sunday with the Wildcats before losing a 75-74 heartbreaker in overtime that left Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury in tears.
“I’ve been in that locker room a lot of times, walked into it the last 12 years, win some and lose some,” said Stansbury, who had to pause a couple of times to gather himself. “But I’ve never walked into a locker room where I was more proud of a bunch of guys, what they did out there today.
“The score has no bearing on how I feel about what they accomplished out there today, because it was amazing.”
Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, the score will have a bearing on their NCAA tournament hopes.
In his latest projection, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi has the Bulldogs (23-11) out of the tournament, the second team out. An emotional Stansbury wasn’t in the mood to do much lobbying in the aftermath of his team’s bitter loss.
“My opinion is like it always is. I have no opinion because my opinion doesn’t matter,” said Stansbury, who’s taken the Bulldogs to six NCAA Tournaments. “I’ve been through this 12 years. My opinion absolutely doesn’t matter.
“What should matter is anybody that witnesses what we’ve accomplished, what our team has done, witness that game right there. … And, again, this wouldn’t even be a conversation if it wasn’t for the other overtime loss we had to them.”
Kentucky rallied from a seven-point deficit in the final three minutes a month ago in Starkville for an 81-75 win.
“That’s twice now that we couldn’t hold them,” senior guard Barry Stewart said in a somber Mississippi State locker room. “We knew what we were playing for. I just hope the committee looks at what we did here this week and how close we came.”
It’s safe to say that the committee will, but it will also no doubt look at the home loss to Rider to open the season, the loss to Western Kentucky and an ugly loss to Tennessee on Senior Day.
“I still think we’ve done enough and proven that we’re one of the teams that should be in the tournament,” said Varnado, who had 18 points, nine rebounds and five blocked shots. “If we could have just finished this game, we wouldn’t have to worry about it.”
As it was, the finish -- particularly in regulation -- was about as crazy as it gets.
With a three-point lead, Stansbury made the decision to foul in the final seconds.
“We wanted to take a few seconds off the clock and then foul,” explained Stewart, the one who fouled Kentucky’s Eric Bledsoe with 4.9 seconds left in regulation.
The unfortunate part for Stewart was that he fouled out.
“I can’t tell you how hard it was watching those last few seconds from the bench and then the overtime,” he said.
Bledsoe made the first three throw and purposely missed the second. The ball took a funky bounce and came off the hands of Patrick Patterson toward the corner. John Wall chased it down, stepped back behind the 3-point line and fired up an air ball.
That’s right, if the ball draws iron, the Bulldogs are probably celebrating right now.
But DeMarcus Cousins grabbed the air ball, turned and put it in to just barely beat the buzzer.
Varnado, who was brilliant Sunday with his ability to block shots and alter shots, admitted that he didn’t really go after Cousins’ shot because he was sure the time had run out.
“It’s like those 4.9 seconds went on forever,” Varnado said. “It was just a bad bounce (on the free-throw miss). We’ve gotten a few of those.”
Even Cousins admitted that it almost seemed like fate was against the Bulldogs
“We were not supposed to win this one,” Cousins said. “Out of all the wins we’ve had, this was probably the luckiest one.”
And the hardest one for the Bulldogs, who left Nashville soon after conducting interviews and were scheduled to land in Starkville about the time the Selection Show was beginning.
“That’s the bad thing. It’s in somebody else’s hands now,” Stewart said.