Mississippi State guard D.J. Stewart had the ball in his hands and a choice to make.
MSU was down two points to Richmond in the waning seconds of Thursday night's NIT quarterfinal game. The Spiders had just missed the front end of a one-and-one that could've put the contest away. Instead, the free throw was missed, MSU's Quinten Post grabbed the rebound and passed the ball to Stewart and the clock was ticking.
Six seconds left. Five seconds. Four seconds. Should Stewart go for the tie or the victory?
"The whole time D.J. had the ball, I was yelling, Shoot the 3! Shoot the 3!,'" Mississippi State head coach Ben Howland said. "I said, 'We don't need the tie, we need the win.'"
Stewart made his choice. He put up the long-range shot. Swish. It was good, the Bulldogs grabbed the lead and with just two seconds left, the Spiders couldn't even get off one last shot. MSU topped Richmond 68-67 and State is headed to the NIT semifinals on Saturday. Safe to say that Stewart made the right decision.
"I was trying to find the ball," Stewart said of the end-of-game sequence. "I looked back and the ball was in the air coming from (Post). I was like, 'I'm either going to lay the ball up or go for the win.' I chose to go for the win and it went in."
Stewart's shot saved the day for the Bulldogs. It was a night in which MSU nearly literally gave the game away. State had 18 turnovers that turned into 24 Richmond points.
If that wasn't a big enough obstacle to overcome, MSU's third-leading scorer and starting forward Tolu Smith had to miss Thursday's game due to COVID-19 contact tracing, despite testing negative the last two days.
But by the end of the night, Smith was taking a phone call from the MSU locker room. Howland had dialed up Smith and put his teammates on the call for an altered group celebration. Stewart's shot had set off the party, but Stewart gave credit to all his teammates for even getting State to a position to have a chance to win.
"I think everybody stepped up together," Stewart said. "Everybody knew they had a bigger role tonight without Tolu."
Guard Iverson Molinar chipped in with 18 points and seven rebounds. It was a Smith-like stat line. Center Abdul Ado had 11 rebounds and came just two points shy of a double-double as he notched eight.
As for Stewart, he finished with a team-best 22 points with 17 of them coming in the second half to help keep the Bulldogs alive. Of course it was the final three of those that won't be soon forgotten.
"It reminded me of being in Texas three years ago when (Quindarry Weatherspoon) beat Baylor with a 3 at the buzzer," Howland said.
Weatherspoon's clutch trey back then was of course part of a 2017-18 run that also saw MSU get to the NIT semifinals. Now, here the Bulldogs are again.
Mississippi State will try to punch its ticket to the championship game when it battles Louisiana Tech at 2 p.m. central on Sunday.