TAMPA — Having lost twice to SEC West foe LSU during the regular season, Mississippi State had the distinct advantage of knowing exactly what wouldn't work against the Tigers in Saturday's semifinals of the SEC basketball tournament.
So it decided to try something that would.
By making good use of its bench to help rotate and rest its potentially weary starters, playing outstanding defense and relying on a dominating inside game led by SEC defensive player of the year Jarvis Varnado, No. 3 seed Mississippi State upset No. 1 seed LSU 67-57 at the St. Pete Times Forum.
The Bulldogs (22-12) play Tennessee today for the tournament championship and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. LSU, ranked 20th, was trying to win its first tournament title since 1980.
"By not having foul trouble, I just went at (LSU center) Chris Johnson and the rest of their bigs," said Varnado, who had a game-high 19 points, seven rebounds and seven blocks. "I played loose. I was able to block a few shots and rebound the ball."
LSU, the SEC regular-season champion, shot 31 percent from the field and was 4-of-16 from 3-point range. LSU's two leading scorers, Tasmin Mitchell and Marcus Thornton, were 7-of-18 and 5-of-19, respectively, from the field. And Thornton was 0-of-6 from beyond the arc.
"I don't want to take anything away from Mississippi State, but I've got to believe that six or seven of those shots missed were good shots," LSU coach Trent Johnson said.
After multiple ties and lead changes, LSU led 35-34 with 17:33 remaining. But Mississippi State went on a 13-4 run to take a 47-39 lead and never trailed again. The Bulldogs also used the free-throw line to their advantage: Mississippi State was 24-of-35 from the line, while LSU (26-7) reached the line just 13 times, hitting nine.
"Going into every game they are trying to be physical with me and Tas," Thornton said. "We know that going in. We're just trying to get ourselves prepared for it. Tip your hat off to Mississippi State. They did a good job."
LSU has now had four consecutive games in which it shot 40 percent or less from the field, but Johnson said he's not concerned about his team heading into next week's NCAA Tournament.
"We'll do what we did to win 26 games," Johnson said. "We'll keep working on the same things."
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.