NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Dylan Cardwell waved to fans, turned a corner toward the locker room and then the 6-foot-11 center celebrated with a cartwheel.

The senior backup scored his only points on consecutive dunks in the final minutes as No. 12 Auburn held off ninth-seeded Mississippi State 73-66 on Saturday to reach the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game.

“That was really a game changer that I feel like gave us a spark to everybody,” Auburn's Chad Baker-Mazara said. “It helped us get the crowd involved, too. It was a really big play. He came in, he came in clutch, turned the whole momentum around.”

With the SEC’s top three seeds losing their openers Friday for the first time since 1983, that left a wide-open path for Auburn (26-7) to win the tournament for the first time since 2019. The Tigers are in the title game for the fifth time in program history.

Auburn will face Florida, a 95-90 winner over Texas A&M, on Sunday as the program goes for its third title. The Tigers showed some toughness on Saturday, handling the physical Bulldogs with their first win by single digits this season.

“It was a rock fight because both teams were playing really, really physical," Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “That’s Mississippi State’s MO. Our MO is playing hard all the time, not always quite as physical. They beat us on the boards, but we hung in there. We hung in there. I thought that was really important.”

Baker-Mazara led five Tigers in double figures with 14 points. Denver Jones and Jaylin Williams each added 13. Johni Broome and Tre Donaldson had 10 apiece.

Josh Hubbard scored 17 of his 20 points in the second half, trying to rally Mississippi State (21-13). The Bulldogs go home a game shy of the championship, continuing a drought that started after their last berth in 2010.

“We had our chances,” second-year coach Chris Jans said.

D.J. Jeffries had 12 points for Mississippi State, and Tolu Smith II had 10.

Mississippi State had pulled to within 57-56 on seven straight points when Cardwell seized the moment. His first dunk came with 4:40 left, he blocked a 3-point try by Hubbard and then dunked again with 4:08 remaining before running over in front of some Auburn fans and yelling with a big fist pump in celebration.

This was a chippy game, with double technicals handed out not once but twice. Broome needed a trainer to treat his nose at one point early in the second half with the Tigers up 39-35.

Mississippi State led 31-29 before Williams beat the buzzer driving to the basket for a layup, tying it up at 31 going into halftime after Auburn trailed 12-4 early. Broome's 3 in the opening minute of the second half put the Tigers ahead to stay.

“We lost our composure, especially myself,” Jeffries said of the Bulldogs' issues in the second half.


Mississippi State: The Bulldogs dominated the boards with a 37-29 edge. But after a 10-1 scoring edge off second-chance points by halftime, Auburn had a 19-15 edge on the boards and a 4-2 difference on second-chance points after halftime. ... The Bulldogs also hurt themselves at the free-throw line, going 17 of 27 (63%).

Auburn: Pearl joined Sonny Smith as the only coaches in program history to reach the title game multiple times. Smith went 1-1 in his trips in 1984 and '85. The Tigers also went in 2000, and Pearl led them to the title in 2019.


Auburn lost on the road at Florida 81-65 on Feb. 10.


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