By Charles Goldberg
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- KT Harrell and Asauhn Dixon-Tatum kept making it close, three times hitting shots to make it a four-point game in the final minute.
Every time Mississippi State answered.
State beat Auburn 82-74 Wednesday night to extend the Tigers' start to a frustrating SEC season, falling to 0-5 in the conference and 8-8 overall. The Tigers have been within a handful of points in every SEC game, or at least they've been within a basket or two with 4½ minutes to play. They were within one point with just over four minutes left Wednesday.
Auburn has seen its chances slip away.
Still, Harrell, who scored 24 points, says his team will be ready when they play at Arkansas on Saturday.
"We don't have a choice," Harrell said. "We have a quick turnaround. We have to let this one go."
The overall outcome was all too familiar for Auburn, which lost in Humphrey Coliseum for the 13th time in the last 14 years. But for this year's team, it was more frustration in close conference games.
The irony was that coach Tony Barbee found the inside game he had been looking for all season. Dixon-Tatum, the center, and forward Allen Payne combined for 24 points and 23 rebounds.
But the stat that jumped out to Barbee was this: Auburn's bench didn't score a point in 34 combined minutes.
"We didn't get any production off the bench. Zero. We played with five guys tonight, and that's disappointing," Barbee said.
Auburn trailed 59-58 with 4:06 remaining, but fouled Tyson Cunningham on a 3-point shot. He converted two of the free throws and the Bulldogs were off to the races before Auburn closed to with those four points with less than two minutes left.
State flipped the first half on the Tigers. Auburn led by nine early, but the Bulldogs led by nine at the half.
"We got a little stagnant, a little lackadaisical in our zone," Barbee said. "But it wasn't so much that. We got really passive offensively. We had nine turnovers in the first half and that gave them momentum going into halftime."
In the final 2½ minutes, when Mississippi State shot 18 free throws, Barbee said the Tigers made "way too many mental errors down the stretch."
Auburn seemed stuck in a 5-to-9-point deficit for the first half of the second half. But, suddenly, Auburn caught a timeout, trailing only 51-49 with 7:40 remaining.
The game started with promise for the Tigers. Auburn led 8-0 early, and went on to hit seven of its first nine shots for a 15-6 lead. But Mississippi State started hitting 3s, and caught and passed the Tigers at 25-23.
Mississippi State closed the first half on an 18-2 run to take a 34-25 halftime lead.
Harrell hit 9-of-17 shots from the field on the way to his 24 points. But SEC-leading scorer Chris Denson was limited to nine shots. He scored nine. Point guard Tahj Shamsid-Deen continued his emergence, scoring 17. Payne and Dixon-Tatum each scored 12.
Roquez Johnson led State with 18.
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine