STARKVILLE, Miss. – Mississippi State was determined to extend its women’s basketball season a tad bit longer.
Rallying from a 14-point deficit early in the second half, the Bulldogs stormed past Auburn 59-54 into the quarterfinals of the WNIT.
MSU (22-13) will make its first quarterfinal appearance and host South Florida (22-12) at 5 p.m. Sunday.
Tickets for the contest go on sale Friday and cost $8 for general admission and $4 for students. The first 600 MSU students get in free, and free pizza will be offered to the first 200 students. Tickets can be purchased online at www.hailstate.com/tickets and by phone at 1-888-GO-DAWGS.
The Bulldogs’ 22 victories are the most since the 2008-09 squad won 23 contests.
Auburn (19-15) won the two regular season meetings between the Southeastern Conference rivals, but MSU made the third meeting a charm. With the win, this Bulldog squad becomes the first in program history to win three postseason games.
“Once again, this team doesn’t quit,” MSU head coach Vic Schaefer said. “Resilient is the word. We did not have a good stretch in the first half. To come out in the second half and have that kind of effort … this team is different.
“It’s a credit to our kids. Their confidence never wavers. My hat is off to them. I feel very blessed and fortunate to be the coach of these kids. We are giving God the glory, because I sometimes think a higher power is in charge.”
Auburn started strong and quickly built a 10-3 lead. The Bulldogs struggled early offensively and used rugged defense to stay within striking range.
A basket by Kendra Grant brought MSU within 17-13. Auburn quickly regained the momentum and stretched the lead to eight points twice over the next five minutes.
Auburn shot 54.5 percent from the field in the opening half and led 28-19 at the intermission.
In the early stages of the second half, a basket by Katia May brought Mississippi State within seven points again at 32-25. Auburn answered with the game’s next seven points to build the game’s largest lead at 14 points, 39-25.
While the Bulldogs were looking for a spark, the signs of a comeback were still there. Auburn was called for 27 fouls and had three players foul out. MSU forced 26 turnovers for a second consecutive game.
State got its biggest spark in the second half from Grant, who scored 15 of her game-high 20 points in the game’s final half.
“The coaches have been talking to me all year about carrying what I do in practice to the game,” Grant said. “In the first half, I missed some shots. In the second half, I was going to do anything I could because we did not want to lose this game.”
A 12-2 run by MSU brought the home team within 41-37 with 9:02 left, after a 3-point basket by Jerica James. Seconds later, a Grant trey had the deficit to one at 41-40. Back-to-back baskets by Grant finally pushed the Maroon and White advantage to 46-43 with 6:38 left in the contest.
The lead switched hands a couple of more times before the Bulldogs took the lead for good.
Two free throws by Breanna Richardson gave the Bulldogs the lead for good at 56-54 with 1:25 left. A free throw by Savannah Carter and two by James helped close out the win. Auburn did not score over the final 1:44 of the contest.
“Once we knocked down a couple of shots, it got everything going,” James said.
For the contest, the Bulldogs hit 19 of 51 shots from the field (37.3 percent), 2 of 10 shots from 3-point range (20.0 percent) and 19 of 33 shots from the free throw line (57.6 percent). The Tigers hit 20 of 46 shots from the field (43.5 percent), 0 of 3 shots from 3-point range (0.0 percent) and 14 of 24 shots from the free throw line (58.3 percent).
The teams were even at 35 rebounds apiece. MSU had 12 assists and 23 turnovers, while Auburn had eight assists and 26 turnovers.
“Our kids forced 26 turnovers again,” Schaefer said. “That doesn’t happen standing around in a 2-3 zone. That is how we played defensively. That is how we attack.”
Martha Alwal posted her 12th double-double of the season and 31st of her career with 11 points and 11 rebounds for MSU.
Auburn received 13 points from Hasina Muhammad, 11 points from Tyrese Tanner and 10 points from Brandy Montgomery.