GREENVILLE, S.C.  Jordan Danberry knew exactly when things turned around for No. 9 Mississippi State in its SEC Tournament opener – when reserve Andra Espinoza-Hunter connected from long range at the end of the first half.

Espinoza-Hunter hit a 35-footer as the buzzer sounded, the 3 putting the defending tournament champions up 26-25 instead of trailing at the break.

"I really think Andi's shot before the half ended gave us a lot of momentum, a lot of energy," Danberry said.

It sure showed as Mississippi State pulled away the final two quarters for a 79-49 victory to reach the tournament semifinals for a fifth consecutive season.

Rickea Jackson had 19 of her 23 points in the last 20 minutes while Danberry had 12 of her 18.

Teammates swarmed and celebrated with Espinoza-Hunter, gliding to the locker room in front instead of worried about how to overcome LSU.

Coach Vic Schaefer also had to change his approach to halftime. His message was less fiery, more positive.

"I told our team we couldn't play any worse and we're still up by one," he said.

Jackson, Danberry and Bulldogs defense took over the rest of the way.

The Bulldogs, led by their stellar freshman Jackson and senior Danberry, kept up the surge and outscored LSU 53-24 in the final 20 minutes.

Mississippi State will play No. 16 Kentucky or Tennessee on Saturday for a spot in the tournament final.

Jackson, the 6-foot-2 forward averaging 14.5 points coming in, also finished with 10 rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block.

"I thought Jackson's play was huge," LSU coach Nikki Fargas said. "We didn't match was she was doing on the floor.

Mississippi State will play No. 16 Kentucky or Tennessee on Saturday for a spot in the tournament final.

Mississippi State finally broke through to win the SEC tournament title a year ago after losing the previous three championship finals to South Carolina.

But the Bulldogs didn't start with the same fire it showed throughout a year ago as LSU took the fight to them much of the opening half.

Schaefer said this year's group has it's own way of doing things that doesn't always look like the Bulldogs of the past — like dominating the second half after sleepwalking through the first.

"That's just my team," he said.

The Tigers were ahead 23-16 after Awa Trasi's 3-pointer with 5:15 left before the break.

But after a timeout, the Bulldogs dug in and found their defense as they limited LSU to 1-of-5 shooting and forced two turnovers the rest of the period.

They got a big-time boost by Espinoza-Hunter's long-distance shot as time ran out. Her teammates rushed the junior to celebrate. After a brief official review as both teams left the court, the basket was ruled good to give Mississippi State a lead it would not surrender.

Khayla Pointer had 14 points to lead LSU, which has not advanced to the semifinals here since 2015.

THE BIG PICTURE

LSU: The Tigers crossed a threshhold in Thursday's second-round win over Florida, earning that 20th victory on the season that should remove any remaining doubt about LSU getting into the NCAA Tournament.

Mississippi State: The Bulldogs needed a jolt to get them started and Espinoza-Hunter's three did the trick this time. Mississippi State might not have the luxury of waiting on such moments going forward here and in the NCAAs to come. The Bulldogs will need to be sharper earlier if they hope to last when the competition toughens.

COACH'S DECISION

Mississippi State leading scorer Jackson started on the bench Friday night for just the sixth time in 31 games this season. Was there a reason? "Yes," Schaefer said. Was she serving a suspension? "No," Schaefer finished.

DOWN TIME

Fargas plans to give her team time to rest, workout to keep somewhat sharp and watch plenty of film before the NCAA Tournament selections on March 16."We can get better mentally through watching film on ourselves," Fargas said.

UP NEXT

LSU awaits a likely berth in the NCAA Tournament

Mississippi State will play in Saturday's semifinals.

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