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Miss. State grabs some rest before NCAA tourney

JACKSON, Miss. | Barry Stewart could use a bit of rest.

Four games in four days, the celebration of an improbable Southeastern Conference tournament title run and a trip from Florida back to Starkville more than qualifies the Mississippi State junior guard for a little relaxation.

But Stewart and his teammates insist fatigue won't be an issue Thursday when Mississippi State (23-12) plays Washington (25-8) in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

By the way, the Bulldogs who are the 13th seed in the West Regional despite winning the SEC tournament, will have to travel cross country to Portland, Ore., for the game, and face the Pac-10 regular season champions, who are seeded at No. 4.

"I think if we get our proper fluids and get our proper rest we will be all right," Stewart said Monday. "I'm just happy to be in. It doesn't matter what seed you are in. We're going to take what we get and we're going to go with that."

Mississippi State demonstrated in the SEC Tournament that it can deal with fatigue and a low seed. The SEC West No. 3 seeded Bulldogs had to knock off Georgia, South Carolina, LSU, and finally SEC East No. 1 seed Tennessee just to make the NCAA field.

Phil Turner scored seven of his 12 points in the final 1:35 Sunday in Mississippi State's 64-61 win over Tennessee. Stewart and Ravern Johnson both scored 11 points for Mississippi State, which also got 10 points, seven rebounds and six blocks from Jarvis Varnado.

The Bulldogs held Tennessee to 29 percent shooting and forced two of the Volunteers' 14 turnovers with the game on the line.

After the SEC title win, Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said he "was surprised that Mississippi State was a 13 seed, no doubt. You win the SEC tournament, I would think you would have to be higher than a 13 seed."

Mississippi State is making its sixth NCAA tournament appearance under coach Rick Stansbury who guided the Bulldogs to a first-round NCAA tournament win over Oregon last year.

But this is a different team.

Many those players have departed — graduation, left the program — and after earlier season non-conference losses to Texas Tech, Washington State, Cincinnati, Charlotte, and San Diego and a 9-7 SEC record, the Bulldogs didn't look much like an NCAA tournament team.

Mississippi State did get off to a good start in SEC play before going on a skid that dropped the Bulldogs to No. 3 in the West.

"We had a brand new team this year and we lost two star players last year. And I think we were picked fourth or fifth in the (SEC) West to start the season. I think our expectations got up so quickly. We did some things early in conference play," Stansbury said.

"We were sitting here 6-2 and playing for first place in the West and playing LSU halfway in the season and all of a sudden our expectations went through the roof and then we lost a double overtime game to LSU and from then on it probably carried over at Auburn. But besides that, we've been in every game."

It was the late-season development of the bench, Stewart said, that led Mississippi State to its current six-game winning streak.

"We have a bunch of shooters and the big guy (Varnado) inside. I think what's helping our team of late is that we have a bench," Stewart said. "And our bench has been big for us for the six games that we hit the stretch. I think we have the makings of a team that can make a run."

Stansbury also said his young team is rebounding and defending better.

Washington is led by the guard tandem of Justin Dentmon and Pac-10 Freshman of the Year Isiah Thomas, who is averaging 15.4 points a game. Thomas played last year at South Kent (Conn.) School and went head-to-head with Mississippi State's freshman point guard Dee Bost, who played last season at Hargrave Military Academy in North Carolina.

"He's a lefty. He's a scoring point guard. I know that. So I know that he can score at will," Bost said. "I'm going to have to stay focus and play D."

Bost scored 21 points against Thomas' prep school last year, while Thomas had 18.

Thomas rolled his eyes when he heard Bost's name Monday, he said he's a good player and "yeah, they beat us."

But that was the past and Mississippi State's present will include rest and preparation for Washington and then the long trip to Oregon.

"Fatigue right now is not an issue because we have a deep bench that came in and gave us some quality minutes throughout the whole (SEC) tournament," Bost said. "We're happy to be there, but at the same time we are not saying...'Oh, we made it to the first round we want to just stop right here.' We want to try to win. Settling for less ain't an option."


AP Sports Writer Gregg Bell in Seattle contributed to this report.