In early January of 2002, Mississippi State was getting no respect. After a solid 13-1 start in nonconference play, State sat unranked in the national polls. But an SEC-opener at home against #6 Kentucky gave the Bulldogs the statement opportunity they needed.
At the start, the game seemed destined to be one of many Kentucky blow-outs in the series’ history. Kentucky scored the first 9 points and raced to a 21-2 lead, and held a 16-point lead 7 minutes into the second half.
And finally, State caught fire.
A Michael Gholar three from the top of the key sparked a 17-2 Mississippi State run, highlighted by Derrick Zimmerman. Z scored 8 points during that stretch, including a spectacular dunk where he beat Keith Bogans on the left baseline, came back into the paint and dunked over Gerald Fitch, sending The Hump into a frenzy.
With 8 minutes left, State had cut Kentucky’s lead to 52-51, and the game remained close until the final minute where an Erik Daniels layup gave the Wildcats a 4-point lead at 65-61. Mario Austin made one of two free throws, and State got the ball back with 18 seconds left, needing a three to tie. What happened next would be the defining moment of Austin's career.
Austin received the inbounds pass, returned it to Zimmerman, and set a weak screen at midcourt. Zimmerman dribbled right, to the three-point line, and dished to the trailing Austin, who was wide open at the top of the key. Austin shot without hesitation, sinking the first three-pointer of his career and tying the game at 65. Even Austin seemed surprised as he ran down the court with his hands up and jaw open in amazement.
Kentucky didn’t get their final shot off before the buzzer and the game went into overtime.
On State's first possession, Zimmerman hit a layup with 1 second left on the shot clock to give MSU their first lead of the game at 67-65.
The Bulldogs held a 70-69 lead with 40 seconds left, but a turnover allowed Kentucky a seemingly easy 3-on-1 fast break. Instead of passing back to a wide-open Gerald Fitch, Keith Bogans took on Michael Gholar 1-on-1 in the post, but Gholar's defense forced Bogans to run too far under the goal and he missed go-ahead layup. Bogans fouled Marckell Patterson on the rebound, and Patterson's 2 free throws gave State the 72-69 lead with 28 seconds left.
Kentucky's Clif Hawkins missed a contested three with 9 seconds left, and Mario Austin was fouled on the rebound. Super Mario hit both free throws and students ran on the court as State celebrated a 74-69 upset over #6 Kentucky.
The improbable three is the lasting memory of Austin's decorated 3-year Bulldog career that included All-SEC 1st-team (2003) and 2nd-team (2002) selections, Honorable Mention All-American (2003), 3-time SEC Player of the Week, MVP of the 2002 SEC Tournament, and a member of MSU's 1,000 point club (24th overall). Had Austin returned for his senior year in 2004, he likely would've finished his career as one of the top-5 in points scored at Mississippi State.
You can watch highlights of the game here: