STARKVILLE, Miss. – Mississippi State saved its best defensive effort for when it needed it the most Wednesday night.
Down six points late in their Southeastern Conference opener, the Bulldogs turned the tables on South Carolina on the defensive end and posted a 56-54 victory in the Humphrey Coliseum.
MSU (6-7 overall, 1-0 conference) won its conference opener for the first time in three seasons. South Carolina (10-4, 0-1) held an eight-point lead in the first half and a six-point lead in the second half. However, the Gamecocks could not make either of those advantages stand up.
“I am really proud of the kids because they saw the reward tonight for all of their hard work,” said MSU head coach Rick Ray, who won his conference debut. “If you play hard, play defense and stick together for 40 minutes, good things can happen to you. I am very proud that they saw that come true tonight.”
The Bulldogs trailed 50-44 with 5:14 left in regulation. MSU had erased a 12-4 first-half deficit with a 10-0 run. However, this situation looked much direr for the Maroon and White.
“We kept our heads up and kept working at it,” MSU guard Trivante Bloodman said. “Good defense leads to good offense. Once we got a couple of steals, we made some things happen. We knew we still had a chance because we were only down six points.”
Ray needed to remind the youthful Pups time was not on their side. However, the ability to make plays was.
“We were in a media timeout and the kids were really down in the huddle,” Ray said. “I told them to not worry about their offense and to worry about stops. Down six points with six minutes to go means all you have to do is make up a point a minute. We knew we could do that if we could get their heads back up.”
The Bulldogs needed roughly two minutes of playing time to string together eight straight points. The coliseum was rocking after a steal by Tyson Cunningham led to a game-tying layup by Roquez Johnson. Cunningham also got a pick on the next possession, leading to a go-ahead running jumper in the lane by Fred Thomas with 3:25 left.
South Carolina battled back to tie, only to have MSU score the game’s next four points. Sword broke the fine tie with two free throws with 46 seconds left in regulation. A steal and follow-up dunk by Sword moved the Bulldogs advantage to 56-52 with 30 seconds left.
The Gamecocks got a basket by Michael Carrera. After two missed free throws, USC got two more shots at it but heavily-contested 3-point shot by Bruce Ellington was blocked out of bounds by Cunningham. Brian Richardson missed a desperation 25-foot heave at the horn sounded.
“We are beginning to do a better job of taking what we learn in practice out to the court on game day,” said MSU guard Jalen Steele, who drew his first start after returning from an early-season injury. “You saw out there tonight what we had been working for the last couple of days in practice. It feels good to see the hard work paying off.”
Steele managed only four points, while being limited to 20 minutes because of heavy cramps. Sword battled through his own cramps for a career-high 18 points. Sword also had three rebounds, two assists and two steals.
Johnson added 14 points. Colin Borchert had a team-high six rebounds and season-high four blocked shots.
Richardson led USC with 20 points, while Ellington added 11 points.
For the contest, the Bulldogs hit 19 of 49 shots from the field (38.8 percent), 0 of 10 shots from 3-point range and 18 of 25 shots from the foul line (72.0 percent). The Gamecocks hit 20 of 51 shots from the field (39.2 percent), 8 of 21 shots from 3-point range (38.1 percent) and 6 of 11 shots from the foul line (54.5 percent).
South Carolina held a 38-29 rebounding advantage. The Bulldogs had eight assists and 17 turnovers, while the Gamecocks had 10 assists and 24 turnovers.