TAMPA — Before the SEC men's basketball tournament began Thursday, Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said he wasn't sure that moving the tournament from a centrally located site such as Atlanta was a smart idea.
Sunday afternoon, the veteran SEC coach was ready to do a commercial for the Tampa Chamber of Commerce.
"Hey, right now, I love Tampa," Stansbury said.
Fresh off its upset of No. 1 West seed LSU, underdog Mississippi State defeated East No. 1 Tennessee 64-61 to win the SEC tournament championship in front of 10,093 at the St. Pete Times Forum.
Mississippi State (23-12) played its way into the NCAA Tournament and became the fourth team in tournament history, and second in a row, to win the title with four wins over four days. Georgia won four games last season.
"About the six-minute mark there was a timeout, and I can remember the look of those five starters' eyes," Stansbury said. "We were going to find a way. We'd come too far to give up now."
In a game that consisted of 11 ties and 15 lead changes, the outcome wasn't decided until the final 23 seconds.
Trailing 62-60, Tennessee guard J.P. Prince could have tied the score with 11.1 seconds remaining but missed the second of two free throws. But MSU knocked the ball out of bounds trying to rebound, and Tennessee took possession. As the Vols tried to inbound the ball, junior forward Tyler Smith was called for a five-second violation and MSU took possession.
It wasn't over. On the inbounds pass from Barry Stewart, Mississippi State guard Dee Bost stepped out of bounds and the ball went back to the Vols with nine seconds remaining. But the Vols gave it right back when their inbounds pass was tipped by Bost and sophomore guard Phil Turner grabbed the steal and was fouled. Turner hit two free throws, then the Vols' Cameron Tatum missed a 3-point attempt to end the game.
MSU center Jarvis Varnado had 10 points, seven rebounds and six blocks to earn tournament MVP honors.
"We were impatient, we forced a lot of things," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. "You want it so bad. You know, you want it so bad that you revert back to trying to do too much. … Offensively, I couldn't get our guys to run continuity and be patient."
RATING TAMPA: The average attendance for each session was 11,856, about 10,000 below capacity. The total was the lowest since the 1990 tournament in Orlando, which had just five sessions and was without Kentucky, which was on probation. Sunday's championship game was also without Florida or Kentucky, the marquee programs, but Tampa Sports Organizing Committee executive director Rob Higgins said, "I think we're definitely focused on having the opportunity to host again. … We had a wonderful experience working with the SEC on the event, and we feel like we would love to continue the relationship."
Whether Tampa is centrally located enough for the other 11 SEC teams outside of Florida will remain up for discussion, but the majority of coaches said the venue is an excellent facility.
"The City of Tampa did an amazing job," Pearl said. "This is a wonderful place to have the tournament. We've got a lot of fond memories. Our Tennessee fans did travel, they we were glad to stay for the weekend."
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.