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March 12, 2010NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - The Southeastern Conference's East Division, stacked with teams like Kentucky, Tennessee and Vanderbilt, has overshadowed and run roughshod over the West Division this season.
Mississippi State is doing its best to make sure that isn't the case for the SEC tournament, too.
Barry Stewart scored 17 points and hit five late free throws as Mississippi State, the only West Division team left in the tournament, held on to defeat Florida 75-69 in the quarterfinals on Friday night.
"We ain't the deepest team, but we're going to fight hard," said Jarvis Varnado, who scored 15 points and blocked four shots. "We're going to play hard, and that's what we did tonight."
Entering the game, the SEC East's top four teams, which included Florida, had a combined 28-0 record against teams from the West. By the time Mississippi State and Florida tipped off, all other West teams had been eliminated.
The Bulldogs (22-9) will face the winner of the quarterfinal matchup between No. 20 Vanderbilt and Georgia, who played late Friday night.
Mississippi State held a 58-39 lead with 13:29 left when it fell into a 6-minute scoring drought.
Kenny Boynton, who led Florida with 23 points, hit a jump shot over Varnado's head to cut Mississippi State's lead to 71-68 with 27 seconds left, but Stewart hit 5 of 6 free throw attempts down the stretch to preserve the win.
Walker added 19 for the Gators.
"I thought our guys tried to make a comeback," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "We battled as hard as we could coming down the stretch, but probably maybe dug ourselves a little bit too deep of a hole there."
Mississippi State seemed well rested coming off its first-round bye. The Bulldogs dominated the first half and all five starters scored in double digits.
The Bulldogs opened with a 10-0 run and shot 62.5 percent to keep a double-digit lead for the last 9 minutes of the first half.
Florida hit only 32.1 percent of its shots in the first half. The Gators had help from Boynton, who hit 4 of 6 shots from 3 and had 16 points at halftime. Only three other Gators scored before the break.
"We didn't come out with the right intensity," Walker said. "Other teams, they came out and knew what they wanted, and we didn't match from the beginning."
One of Boynton's 3s from the wing cut the Bulldogs' lead to 13-9 with 12:38 before halftime, but Mississippi State had an answer from Riley Benock, who hit a 3 from the top of the key. The Bulldogs hit 7 of 11 from behind the arc.
Mississippi State is trying to secure a place in the NCAA tournament. The Bulldogs shared the SEC West regular-season title with Mississippi but don't have a resume-building win to make a strong case for the postseason.
"Our guys understand where we're at," Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said. "Our guys understand what we have to do. And now you've got a chance to play that second (SEC tournament game), and I think our kids, no question after the first one, will play with even more of a sense of urgency and confidence."
Florida's chances are even murkier. The Gators' biggest win was a 75-62 victory at home over then-No. 19 Tennessee, but they finished fourth in a crowded SEC East.
"If that's enough, then so be it," Donovan said. "We'll wait and see what happens on Sunday."
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