Three wins in Atlanta will score State an automatic NCAA Tournament berth, and in fact is the only access left to the ‘big dance.' The Bulldogs arrive as the #2 seed from the Western Division and have a bye-day to prepare for the winner of Thursday's #3 East vs. #6 West winner. The Gamecocks (14-15, 5-11 SEC) go to Atlanta with no better hopes and an even longer run based on their #6 East seeding.
Yet as hapless as South Carolina has been, they still gave State much more of a challenge than necessary. In fact the Gamecocks found themselves in the final half-minute down a single point and with the ball and time. Guard Bruce Ellington's 23-footer had no chance; as did another, last-chance attempt from the corner that drew only air and was snared by Augustus at the horn.
"Sometimes you just have to find ways to win, and that's what we did," Coach Rick Stansbury said.
Fittingly it was the pair of upperclassmen who found their own ways to win out on Senior Day. Guard Johnson threw in seven three-point goals for all of his game-best 21 points, while forward Augustus went out on a double-double with 15 points and ten rebounds. They made sure State's string of Senior Day losses ended at two. In fact, Augustus said he and classmates Johnson and Riley Benock took a much more businesslike approach into their finale.
"It's just going with what we've been taught to do. I mean, seniors, we know what to expect and don't get too emotional and just play the game."
For his part Johnson admitted to more nerves, as exemplified by missing a long one just 14 seconds after tipoff. "After I got my first shot out of my system I was fine after that. I thought I was going to airball, anything. But after that I calmed down and let everything come back toward me." The ball certainly came to him often enough to try 18 shots, 14 from the arc. Augustus was 3-of-4 there himself.
In fact the Bulldogs threw up no less than 26 trey-tries, or over half of all their field goal attempts. Though this was partly in keeping with the club's offensive preferences, South Carolina did a lot to encourage longballs. For the first 35 or so minutes the Gamecocks relied on zone defending, taking their chances with State shooters. Eleven made treys were the price paid for over half the MSU markers.
"We had to play against a zone for basically 40 minutes and that slowed us up some," Stansbury said. Though when South Carolina got out of that zone it was to full-court pressure and that hurt the Dogs worse, creating turnovers that allowed the Gamecocks to cut a 13-point deficit to that bare one-point margin, three times in the last two minutes.
"Give South Carolina some credit for not giving up," Stansbury said. "That's kind of been the way they keep playing, they jumped up and made some shots. We miss a dunk to put us up 15, and they keep coming. And we had some late turnovers that allowed them to get back I the game."
What likely saved State was getting to a few more rebounds when it mattered most, and a 41-36 final margin on the glass. Augustus had ten of those in a double-double Senior Day. Though not an upperclassman, soph center Renardo Sidney did the double-duty as well with 13 points, 12 rebounds.
"We knew Mississippi State was great offensively so our mindset was to play tough defense," Coach Darrin Horn said. "I thought we did great defensively and pretty adequate off the boards. I was proud of our team's effort but you have to give credit to Johnson and Augustus because those guys made the plays they needed to make."
Ellington led his squad with 15 points and three treys, while forward Malik Cooke had 13 points and forward Sam Muldrow 10 with seven boards.
Johnson did stick his second threefer and Augustus two more as State pushed out to a 16-5 lead. It was Muldrow who staved off early blowout with six-straight points and the Gamecocks remained just close enough to keep the 7,955 home crowd antsy. So did poor overall shooting by both sides, 35% for State and 29% for South Carolina at intermission. The skinner Gamecocks were actually having the better of things inside with 14 of their points in the paint.
"They're long and active and that's a tough zone," Augustus said. "We kept jumping and it was just a battle." A battle that continued ten minutes into the new half with a 45-40 difference after Eric Smith hit a three. South Carolina wouldn't get another bucket for five more minutes though as the Bulldogs gradually ground out to a 53-40 advantage at 5:32. "After a while we started figuring it out," said Johnson of the zone. "We were just taking a lot of threes but we finally started penetrating a little bit and getting Sid and Kodi a lot of shots."
At that point the Gamecocks abandoned the inside attack and began really throwing up threes, none remotely close to good. Then Ellington got one to drop. As if a barrier had been broken South Carolina began knocking down jumpers or slashing for layups set up by a series of intercepted passes. "We had this game totally under control, we had a bad stretch that let them get back in it," Stansbury said. With a minute remaining State had possession and a 57-56 edge.
Over half that minute ran down as the Dogs dribbled around, until Augustus got the pass right of the bucket. His turning, fallaway jumper swished at 28.3. "I knew the clock was going down and Riley threw it to me, and I knew I was going to make that move. And it went in."
But it was far from over because trying to get official attention for a timeout Stansbury dashed onto the court, nearly colliding with a ref who took a few more steps before stopping at half-court to call a technical. Cooke made both of the free free throws for a one-point difference, possession, and over 25 seconds to set up some sort of go-ahead play.
Instead Ellington forced his first long chance, a very long one, and left it far too low. Not only that but the loose rebound last touched a Gamecock. Bost got the inbounds and foul but made just the first free shot at 8.8 so there was still an upset opportunity. This time South Carolina pitched it around twice before Ellington fired from the right corner with Benock in his face, Augustus catching the airball below rim level.
"It's crazy, after all those turnovers, but it's a good win," said Augustus.
A good way to go out, too, though Benock failed to dent the scoreboard in his homecourt finale and too just three shots. "He didn't score a basket but he did a lot of things that help your team win," Stansbury said.
Benock and company have their chance at more winning come Friday in the scheduled 9:00et game in the Georgia Dome. The Bulldogs won't know until Sunday who the potential opponent is; the loser of Saturday evening's Auburn at LSU game will be West #6; and East #3 will only be settled Sunday after the Kentucky at Tennessee contest. What they do know is that nothing short of a three-win streak in Atlanta will suffice for a NCAA berth…which is a been there/done that scenario for Mississippi State of course. Thus, a situation these Dogs are both comfortable with and confident about.
"We've got a lot of momentum and I feel we always play good at the SEC Tournament," Johnson said. "Now we hope to take that momentum to the tournament."