By Gregg Ellis
STARKVILLE - Mississippi State can now start spreading the news.
It's going to New York.
Tuesday night in front of an electrified crowd of 9,013 at Humphrey Coliseum, the Bulldogs punched their ticket to the MasterCard NIT Final Four with a resounding 86-71 victory against Florida State.
MSU achieved its first semi-final berth at Madison Square Garden with a balanced scoring attack that featured a season-high six players in double-digits, as well as a defensive effort that resulted in 29 points off 25 turnovers.
State, which improved to 21-13 and won its seventh-straight at home, also won the battle boards, 39-31, with 20 coming on the offensive end.
"What a game," a sweat-drenched Rick Stansbury said. "I'm awfully proud of the way our guys came out and played. We were out-matched in a lot of areas, strength and size wise. But our fight and our heart, we weren't out-matched."
Jamont Gordon once against paced the Bulldogs with 16 points. He didn't have a particularly good night shooting, as he hit just three of his 12 shots, but he found success driving the lane, where he either drew the foul or found an open teammate.
The sophomore guard connected on nine of his 11 free throws and was credited with seven assists.
"We just played as a team," he said. "Everyone did their thing."
Perhaps the most important thing they did was attack FSU All-American and Wooden Award finalist Al Thornton from start to finish.
The ACC's leading scorer entered the game averaging nearly 20 points, but was held to 16 due to early foul trouble.
He played just four minutes in the opening frame due to three fouls and took only one shot.
"Without him, their offense couldn't get into any type of rhythm," said Gordon, who also had six rebounds and three steals.
The Seminoles (22-13) didn't exactly collapse as soon as Thornton exited.
Isaiah Swann kept his team in striking distance as he scored 19 of his career-high 31 points in the opening 20 minutes.
He hit his first six field goals and drained 9-of-13 3-pointers, one shy of a school record.
"Isaiah has been a real strong presence these last few games," FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said. "Especially down the stretch. He has been very poised and has knocked down open shots when they have been given to him. He showed a calmness and maturity about him that I have not quite seen before."
Still, State lead 42-29 at the break.
But with 3 ? minutes remaining, the Seminoles trailed just 32-26 and had the ball. However, two turnovers and five field goals later, State pushed its lead to double digits.
"That span was the biggest disappointment," Hamilton said. "That took the emotion out of our players going into the half."
Mississippi State had its foul troubles, too.
Charles Rhodes, who scored 16 points before fouling out late, was limited in his minutes. But as the case has been several times this year, freshman Jarvis Varnado picked up the slack.
He hit all five of his field goals and finished with 10 points, while both of his rebounds came on the offensive end and resulted in putbacks.
"He was huge," Stansbury said. "He came off the bench and added again. He just didn't keep us where we were, he kept adding and we extended the lead."
Dietric Slater finished with 13 points, while Ben Hansbrough and Barry Stewart totaled 12 and 10, respectively.
Hansbrough also led State with seven turnovers.