BOISE, Idaho -- Mississippi State coach Richard Williams can usually gauge how well center Erick Dampier will play by his actions during the pre-game warm-ups. But yesterday the sign came a bit earlier, at the team's morning breakfast.
"It was a very good sign when Erick showed up early for the pre-game meal," Williams said. "He doesn't show up early for anything. I don't know if he showed up early because he was hungry or showed up early because he was ready to play."
Hungry, yes. But Dampier was also ready to play.
The 6-foot-11 sophomore dominated yesterday's game against Utah with 21 points, 10 rebounds and eight blocks as Mississippi State advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history with a 78-64 victory.
Dampier joins Maryland's Joe Smith and Connecticut's Ray Allen in what figures to be a sophomore-studded West Regional this week in Oakland, Calif.
Utah had entered yesterday's game the winner of 14 of 15 games but was done in by its poor shooting. The Utes hit 35 percent of their shots from the field, their second-worst field-goal outing of the season. Sophomore Keith Van Horn, the Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year, led Utah with 21 points but hit just eight of 20 shots. Brandon Jessie, the second-leading scorer, scored all of his 13 points in the second half. And reserve center Michael Doleac, the team's third-leading scorer, hit one of 10 shots and finished with two points.
Call it Dampier's imprint on the game.
"He's a very strong, very agile player," Van Horn said. "When you come down the lane, he's going to be there. For all the shots he blocked, he affected just as many."
The Utes found themselves facing a 13-point halftime deficit because they couldn't figure a way to attack Dampier. Still Utah was within 23-20 with 4:09 left after a jumper by Van Horn.
But Mississippi State finished the half with a 12-2 run, which featured a sequence in which Dampier blocked two shots by Ben Melmeth and one by Van Horn in one Utah possession. Five of Dampier's eight blocks came in the first half.
"That kid is quick off his feet," Utah coach Rick Majerus said. "He changed the game."
Utah decided to play a single man defensively against Dampier in the first half, which proved to be a mistake. Dampier hit seven of eight shots and scored 16 points. He averaged 12.9 points before yesterday.
When playing Dampier straight up didn't work, Majerus decided to drop a second defender on him in the post in the second half. That just opened up the Mississippi State outside game, and the Bulldogs hit four of their six three-pointers in the second half, two by Darryl Wilson and two by Marcus Grant.
"If I had to do it again, I would try a triangle or a box-and-one," Majerus said. "They're real athletic. Not only were they quick, they're strong. We have to get our guys down there to eat some barbecue."
The Utes trailed by as many as 19 in the second half before getting as close as 63-57 on a three-pointer by Mark Rydalch with 1:45 left. The Utes hit four of their last five three-pointers after missing their first nine.
Not one of the better known teams in the Southeastern Conference, Mississippi State had impressive wins over Arkansas and Kentucky this season. Until the final week of the season, the Bulldogs had the nation's best defensive field-goal percentage, and the reason is Dampier. Yesterday, he showed why he was named to the league's first team.
"I wanted to play ball. That's why I woke up early," said Dampier, who changed an 8 o'clock class this semester because of his inability to make it on time. "I wanted to come in and dominate the game."
Which pleased Williams, who knew when the day started that Dampier would come through big.
"I think Erick is starting to realize how good he can be," Williams said. "His mind frame was that he was going to dominate the game, and that's what he did."