STARKVILLE, MISS. >> Mississippi State's Breanna Richardson had made a grand total of two 3-pointers this season before catching a pass and launching a 20-footer in the most important minute of her team's most important game.
There was never any hesitation. It looked good the entire way.
It went in.
And it was the defining play in fifth-seeded Mississippi State's 74-72 victory over No. 4 seed Michigan State on Sunday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
"She was ready for the moment," Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said. "And she was ready because of her preparation."
Victoria Vivians scored 24 points to lead the Bulldogs (28-7), who now prepare for just the school's second trip to the Sweet 16.
Richardson's 3-pointer gave Mississippi State a 72-69 lead with 34 seconds remaining. The 6-foot-1 junior was an unlikely candidate to make the game-changing shot — she played just six minutes in the team's first round win over Chattanooga and was just 2 of 15 (13.3 percent) for the season from beyond the arc until Sunday.
"It was just the fact that I was wide open," Richardson said. "I shoot 3-pointers all the time in practice, but I don't do it much in the game. It was just an open opportunity."
Michigan State had a chance to tie the game with two close shots in the final possession, but both missed. There was a chaotic scramble for the ball in the final seconds and television replays appeared to show Mississippi State's Kayla Nevitt stepping out of bounds with about four seconds remaining.
But there was no call and the Bulldogs hung on for the win in front of a jubilant announced home crowd of more than 7,000.
"It was a good basketball game — could have gone either way," Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant said. "It's unfortunate someone has to lose a game like that."
Mississippi State led 51-38 early in the third quarter, but Michigan State responded with the next 14 points to take a 52-51 advantage going into the fourth.
Michigan State (25-9) extended its run to 20 straight points by midway through the fourth quarter. The Bulldogs went more than nine minutes without scoring.
Mississippi State fought back and the two teams traded the lead down the stretch with several dramatic baskets.
Michigan State was led by Branndais Agee's 21 points.
Tori Jankoska added 17 points for the Spartans. Jasmine Hines had 15 and Aerial Powers 14.
The game figured to be an intriguing matchup between Michigan State's balanced offense — which averages more than 75 points per game — and Mississippi State's in-your-face defense that gives up around 54.
It was the Bulldogs' defense that dominated most of the first half. The Spartans shot 11 of 22 (50 percent) from the field, but were hurt by 13 turnovers.
Mississippi State got some easy buckets from those turnovers — 14 points in all — which was a big reason the Bulldogs led 40-34 at halftime. Morgan William and Vivians both had nine first-half points.
William finished with 14 points, including two free throws in the final seconds.
Mississippi State looked like it might pull away for good when it stretched its lead to 51-38, but Michigan State finally found some room to work on offense. Powers started to get free for drives to the basket and Hines converted in the post on a few opportunities and also hit some free throws.
Michigan State led 58-51 with 7:44 left, but then it was the Bulldogs' turn to respond.
Vivians hit a much-needed 3-pointer to give the Bulldogs momentum and then Richardson made a layup to push Mississippi State ahead 61-60. Richardson hit an even bigger shot minutes later, pushing the Bulldogs to a likely matchup against No. 1 overall seed UConn in the Sweet 16.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs are now 33-3 at Humphrey Coliseum over the past two years. ... Mississippi State has a 22-1 record this year when it wins the rebounding advantage. The Bulldogs outrebounded the Spartans 37-33.
Michigan State: The Spartans had to play on the road as a No. 4 seed because their home arena in East Lansing is being used for the Michigan high school basketball state playoffs.
Mississippi State travels to Bridgeport, Connecticut, for the Sweet 16.
Michigan State's season is over.
AP College Basketball Website: www.collegebasketball.ap.org
Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP