"The first time it was an ankle, then it was cramps. I just fought through it," said Sword in postgame with an ice-packed right leg (the cramping one) extended onto a convenient chair. These setbacks limited him to 28 minutes but Sword made the most of them scoring a team-leading 18 points including the game-clinchers. He wasn't the only hurting Bulldog in a frantic, physical game.
Yet the home team had just enough left to hold off South Carolina's last bids. Down two points after missed MSU free throws, Gamecock guards got off a pair of tough far-corner shots. Both missed, giving Rick Ray a win in his first conference contest as a head coach. State improved to 6-7 while the Gamecocks left 10-3.
"For our guys to get their first win in the SEC is huge for us," Ray said. "Our guys did a good job of persevering."
There was much to overcome, not least a parade of players going to the bench with cramps or bruises or simple exhaustion. On top of that the Bulldogs couldn't buy a long-range basket, going 0-of-10 at the arc. The Gamecocks in contrast made a living there, 8-of-21, and were always just one more jumper from taking control. But somehow State was for the first time in the arc-era able to win a game without making any threes.
"A lot of credit to Rick and his kids, I thought they played hard," Coach Frank Martin said. "All the adversity they've been dealing with, a lot of credit for the way they defended their homecourt."
This wasn't an artistic evening for either team. There were more turnovers than baskets, 41 to 39, and not nearly all of them were forced defensively. Each team played helter-skelter enough to cause their own problems. Yet this played more to Mississippi State's strengths, such as they were.
"It shows our guys we can find a way," Ray said.
Not to mention that State can adjust on the fly. Ray threw a 2-3 zone together early, only to watch Gamecocks Brian Richardson and Ellington shred it from outside for a 12-4 lead. "I said (deleted) this, we're going back to man," Ray said. "And our guys did a good job getting us back in the game." Because more immediate coverage threw South Carolina off their stride and into a turnover contest.
State wasn't a lot sharper but liked the ramble-scramble much more five different Dogs scoring in a stretch, including Sword before he turned the ankle at 7:21. Guard Jalen Steele gave his home team a short lead before Ellington's trey made a 26-26 halftime score. The Gamecock guard added another early in the second half along with Richardson for a six-point margin that still stood at 7:08.
"They key turning point was at six minutes, the media timeout," Ray said. "Our guys heads were dropped, they were solemn. I said get your heads up, we can make this happen." All the coach asked was a point per minute to make up the margin; he got better as forward Colin Borchert made free throws, Sword—returned after cramping up at both 12:41 and 9:13—drove for a layup, and forward Rocquez Johnson spun across the lane for a 50-50 tie.
Guard Fred Thomas broke it with a driving banker off another Gamecock giveaway at 3:25. Two scoreless minutes later SC's Lakeem Jackson re-tied the tally, but it was Sword getting aggressive and drawing the bang-bang foul from Ellington under the goal. And it was Ellington who had Thomas tap it away on a quick trap to Sword.
Cramps or not he dunked it. Thomas could have iced it at 9.5 seconds but missed both free shots giving a last Gamecock chance. Or two as it turned out; Ellington's shot ended up behind the backboard as guard Tyson Cunningham deflected it. But Ray didn't know that and expected his team would be inbounding with eight-tenths showing.
"I thought the whole time it was our ball, then the ref came over and said no. I said hold on now, I've been preparing our team for us ball! But we figured out a way and ended up winning the game." Because with Cunningham and Thomas jumping out on him Richardson's desperate shot caught only iron. He did report being ticked on the shooting arm by Cunningham with no call.
Richardson led everyone with his 20 points, making five of 11 trey tries, while Ellington hit three longballs and scored 11 points. Two Bulldogs were also in double-digits as Johnson scored 14, eight of those on free throws. The home team was 18-of-25 at the stripe compared to 6-of-11 for South Carolina, though the visitors had a 38 to 29 edge in rebounding. It was their 24 turnovers, with 14 State steals, that did the real damage. Sword had five of the steals.
"We picked up the pressure and got stops," guard Trivante Bloodman said. "Once we get steals we're good in transition." Quick-chance baskets were the clear key to State overcoming 30% shooting in the first half to make 48% in the second, with 14 fastbreak points all night. South Carolina scored a single transition bucket.
"We just had bad turnovers," Martin said. "On the road if you can have a lead going into that last media you're going yourself a chance, and that's all you ask for. We were there and had a real bad defensive breakdown. It's unfortunate, but we fought. Our defensive numbers were half-way decent."
Ray credited a pair of defensive efforts as decisive down the stretch. "Fred Thomas is really active in that 1-3-1 defense. With his length he's able to get in lanes and get deflections. But the key was Colin Borchert (in the post), each time they tried to spread us out he was able to contain people one-on-one." Borchert offset State problems getting the ball inside offensively to center Gavin Ware, held to two points and four rebounds.
While he certainly expects his offense to make a few more treys this season—this was the first time since a 2005 blowout at Alabama a State team did not hit any threes—Ray saw something of a SEC season template tonight. "I think that's going to be the way all the time, not just this year that's how conference basketball is.
"And our guys needed that because they haven't experienced it. I'm happy because our guys have been playing really hard, for them to see some success on the court is good. Now they understand if they play this hard and do things the right way they've got a chance."
The Bulldogs are at Georgia this Saturday for a 12:30 tipoff.