In a game that resembled a backyard brawl, the fifth-seeded Bulldogs floored second-seeded Cincinnati, 73-63, to win the NCAA Southeast Regional final and a berth in the Final Four.
The Bulldogs will take their bruising style of play to the Meadowlands next Saturday, where they'll meet another long shot, Syracuse, in the national semifinals.
They can only hope they'll still be underdogs when they hit the Big Apple.
"We like being the underdog," said 6-foot-11 center Erick Dampier. "Everywhere you looked, newspapers had us as the underdog against UConn. Even Dick Vitale picked us to be the underdog. Every time he picks us to be the underdog, we win."
The Bulldogs converted disbelievers with every step of their remarkable run to the Final Four. They are 8-0 in March and have won 15 of the past 17 games.
In the last two weeks, State beat three teams in the top seven of the AP poll -- then-No. 1 Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference tournament championship game, No. 3 Connecticut in the regional semifinals and No. 7 Cincinnati.
Yesterday, the Bulldogs (26-7) led wire to wire, beating the Bearcats (28-5) at their own physical game. A searing start by 6-7 small forward Dontae Jones effectively took the largely partisan crowd of Cincinnati fans out of the game and helped earn him the outstanding player award for the Southeast Region.
Jones hit his first six shots and scored 15 of Mississippi State's first 18 points -- including 10 in a row -- as the Bulldogs opened leads of 13-4 and 20-10.
"Those are shots I usually take," he said. "The adrenalin was pumping more than usual today. The ball was feeling good coming off my hands, and I tend to keep shooting once the shots are falling."
Jones had 17 points at halftime and 23 for the game with 13 rebounds.
Mississippi State's backcourt of Darryl Wilson (16 points) and Marcus Bullard combined for 27 points and eight assists.
In the game within the game, the Bulldogs were able to survive Dampier's second-half foul trouble with a seven-point, four-rebound game from Tyrone Washington off the bench and a 10-rebound contribution from Russell Walters.
Shortly after Dampier picked up his third foul four minutes into the second half, the Bearcats made their best run of the game. A layup by Danny Fortson (24 points, 13 rebounds) cut Cincinnati's eight-point halftime deficit to 41-38 with 15: 19 to play.
When Dampier went out with his fourth with 11: 26 left, the Bulldogs were leading 48-41. When he came back seven minutes later, the game was over, thanks to a 15-6 run that opened a 63-47 lead.
It was during that run that Cincinnati's game came apart at the seams. Art Long picked up three fouls -- and fouled out -- in a span of 2: 35. Fortson, Cincinnati's other force inside, got his third and fourth fouls in a span of 1: 19. And the Bearcats got just one field goal in eight minutes.
The Bearcats had boasted of their punishing physical style coming in, but had no options when their inside game failed to click. Damon Flint, who led Cincinnati in scoring in its three previous tournament games, had only two on an atrocious 1-for-12 shooting performance against Jones and Wilson.
"They played a lot smarter than we did," Fortson said. "They got all the loose balls and all the calls tonight. Everything went their way. . . . I don't think they pushed us around. They just got the loose balls."
Mississippi State won the battle of the boards, 44-38. Its trademark man-to-man defense held the Bearcats to 33.8 percent shooting from the field. That has been a recurring theme for the Bulldogs, who have yet to allow a team to shoot 40 percent in the NCAA tournament. In four NCAA games, opponents have shot a miserly 32.7.
"We could tell they were taking a lot of forced shots," Wilson said of the Bearcats. "You could tell when we clamped down, they took shots they normally didn't take."
The Bulldogs joyously cut down the Rupp nets, but the locker room celebration of their first-ever trip to the Final Four was muted.
"We can't enjoy this the way we want to," Bullard said. "It's not what we want. It's great to get to the Final Four, but we want it all."
If the Bulldogs get past Syracuse on Saturday, they could get a rematch with Kentucky in Monday's championship game.
Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins warned not to count out the underdog Bulldogs.
"If Mississippi State plays the way it played here, they can beat anybody," Huggins said.
Pub Date: 3/25/96