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By MATTHEW STEVENS
In the eyes of many Wendell Lewis' game-winning basket Saturday counted for more than two points.
Most importantly - to him.
"It kind of boosted my confidence," Lewis said. "I was kind of excited when I made the last shot of the game."
To hear him describe State's final possession in a hostile environment and be able to pull off a upset at Tennessee, Lewis was one of the last people who would've thought he'd get the ball.
"I saw Dee coming down the court (and) I thought he was going to the basket," said Lewis, who is averaging three points per game in limited action. "I wasn't expecting him to pass it. I was going to the goal just in case he missed, to get the rebound. It so happened I look up, and I thought he was losing control, and I saw him spin, and I saw him drop me off a pass, and I just dunked it."
It was the look and actions that his coaches have wanted to see since he arrived on campus two years ago.
"When you're up around that rim and as explosive as he is - go up and dunk all those balls," Mississippi State head coach Rick Stansbury said. "How many times have you seen him go up and soften that thing up there? That's what we need from him every game."
Apparently it's not just Stansbury that has had this concern with the powerful 6-foot-8 forward.
"A couple of players said the same thing, they were surprised I didn't lay the ball up," Lewis said. " Because in the back of my head I was like, I wanted to lay it up, but I was like 'naw, I need to go to the basket aggressively and get these two points'."
With sophomore starter Renardo Sidney suffering from what school officials are calling a "stomach virus" throughout the weekend and the 6-foot-10 star forward being unable to play more than 10 minutes in State's 70-69 win at Tennessee Saturday, Lewis became a vital role in the Bulldogs seven-player rotation.
"I wasn't really paying no attention," Lewis said. "I was zoned out. We came back in at halftime, and somebody said he was back there puking. I was like 'whoa'"
Stansbury said Sidney would practice Monday after vomiting in the locker room of the Thompson Boling Arena Saturday and additionally being limited by a toe injury. The Bulldogs 13-year head coach was unsure exactly what the virus was but is sure his big toe injury will be fine for State's Wednesday night contest at Arkansas (8 p.m., CSS).
Lewis' seven points and eight rebounds were second-high totals for the 2010-11 season and his 24 minutes on the floor tied his season-best going back to an overtime win over Troy on Nov. 26.
"From last year to this year, I feel like I needed to step up, be more aggressive, be more focused," Lewis said. "I have gotten more comfortable out on the court, feeling more free. I don't worry about if I mess up."
With player defections, injuries and suspensions flipping the MSU depth charts on nearly a game-by-game basis, Lewis has consistently been elevating his play in that backup forward/center role throughout a 2010-11 season and Stansbury talked Monday abut how important it will be for him to bring that consistency when called upon in these final two regular season contests.
"You've seen spurts in every game but it just hasn't been consistent," Stansbury said. "There's a learning curve for everybody and he's starting to figure it out every day and I like that."
Ranked by the Birmingham News as the sixth-best senior in Alabama after leading his Selma High School team in points, (16.5), rebounds (11.2) and blocks (3) en route to a berth in the Class 5A state tournament, Stansbury's intentions initially were to treat Lewis as a project but last year's circumstances quickly changed.
"We've said from day one, you wish you could've redshirted him," Stansbury said. "He's battle tested now and understanding more what it takes."