"We did want this win," guard Craig Sword said. "We got it. Now we're going into the SEC Tournament and we're going to play our best."
And by their 2012-13 standards, the Bulldogs are indeed playing their best in the build-up to tournament time. They've won two of the last three contests, accounting for half their SEC successes, and avoided the ignominy of being seeded last this week in Nashville. There Mississippi State (9-21, 4-14 SEC) rematches with the Gamecocks (14-16, 4-14) in the first round, 6:30 on Wednesday.
The Bulldogs leave for Nashville tomorrow and their scheduled practice in Bridgestone Arena. Tuesday's session is at 5:15 and open to the public. They are working out on campus today, taking advantage of the school spring break. The practice is booked around Ray's mid-day trip to Jackson and the annual Bailey Howell Trophy presentation by the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame.
Even if Mississippi State's head coach wasn't there to accept any trophies, he definitely could carry his head higher among his state college coaching peers. That's a benefit of the week-ago upset of Ole Miss at the Hump. As Ray said at the time, splitting the series in his first season with State was critical to how everyone—coaches, players, even fans—handle the long off-season. Which in Ray's case is beginning as soon as the Dogs return from Nashville.
Preferably not after the opening round, said assistant coach Chris Hollender today, speaking for his busy boss on the SEC teleconference. "I think for us right now our group is really excited about coming to work and playing every day. We're playing a little bit better the last few games, we had a great win against Ole Miss and to finish off the way we did we're really proud of the way these guys are fighting and competing."
State scored another pride-point Monday as Sword was named the SEC's Freshman of the Week. The big-guard absolutely earned it too. Not only did he put up 19 points in the home-finale victory, as well as hit decisive free throws in overtime; Sword scored 20 at South Carolina for by-far his best back-to-back games all this rookie season.
Picking up this weekly recognition should put Sword in good stead to be named All-SEC Freshman for the season. He just move back to the top of State's scoring list at 10.3 for the year, too and is coming into his own down the stretch. "He's done a great job," Hollender said. "He's really developed. One thing he's really gotten better at is his pace. He's got a motor and goes fast all the time. What we're trying to do is get him to slow down and see things defensively and recognize situations throughout games."
By no means does Ray intend the last eight days of the schedule to obscure the entire season. Especially not for a program that the previous four years went to SEC Tournaments playing for NCAA opportunity. In 2009 they earned it, the others they didn't or settled for a secondary event. The point is that it has been a long time since Mississippi State attended the conference tourney without further aspirations.
At the same time, a first-year coach makes the most of the positives his team provides. "You just want to see your guys have some success," Ray said Saturday. "Our kids play hard, even in practice it's to exhaustion. But for those guys to continue to fight and find a way when really to the outside world this game means nothing, it should mean something to you to go represent yourself by playing hard and trying to get wins."
So the Bulldogs will try to get another win Wednesday. The scouting report won't take long either as this is a rematch of a regular season meeting played only last Wednesday. On their home court the Gamecocks broke things open in the second half, only to see State mount a furious rally to pull within a couple of shots.
Those were missed and State lost 79-72. They also lost junior guard Jalen Steele to a knee injury, his second ACL tear at MSU though at least this time to the other knee from his 2011 injury. So the Bulldogs were back to the oddly-normal (after a season full of injuries and suspensions) eight players for the Auburn finale. They still won.
So being short-handed in Nashville isn't much of an issue any more. Borchert, who had the biggest single shot in Saturday's win, said the team's mentality is good again. "We beat Ole Miss, and come out and get a win. Our record ain't good but this build sour confidence. We have a lot of young players and our confidence goes up-to-down really fast for one game, one shot. To get this win was big for us because our confidence level goes off the roof now."
SEC Tournament history shows how much motivation matters in first-round matchups. The Gamecocks have no realistic post-season options either, and though they are seeded a slot higher that's mere statistical semantics in a 12/13 matchup. This game's theme will be along the lines of a rubber match, since Mississippi State opened the SEC schedule with a 56-54 home win over South Carolina. Two tight contests indicate this could and maybe should be an entertaining affair.
If one likes grueling play, said Ray. "Here we are going to play SC three times and in such a short time. Frank Martin's team is going to play hard and compete. We turned the ball over too much at South Carolina and we didn't guard Brian Williams, he went nuts on us." Of course so did Sword on the Gamecocks, and to a lesser extend forward Rocquez Johnson (12 points). But what will be missing is the 17 points Steele had scored up to that injury with seven minutes remaining.
Borchert should be looked at to replace those points. He not only put up 20 in beating Auburn, but had a season-best 21 in the win over the Rebels. A trend emerges, maybe? Borchert is actually prouder of his improved rebounding lately.
"I'm used to getting double-doubles in junior college. I've been struggling to get offensive rebounds, but getting a lot of defensive rebounds. So that was one thing I focused on; being tough, boxing out." This has been a big boost given how freshman center Gavin Ware is getting taken out of games by opponents dropping and doubling on State's only true post player. The Gamecocks certainly have; in his two meetings with South Carolina, Ware has scored eight total points and been held to just five shots.
Round-three is Ware's chance to change the pace. To Borchert it is an opportunity to add a little more off-season momentum. "We just need to go play Mississippi State basketball. Go be tough. Last time they were tougher than us, and they're coached to be tough. That's what Coach Ray is trying to teach us here, to be tough."
And should these tough Dogs get it going? "I think we have a chance to beat them," said Borchert.
Wednesday's winner advances to a 2:30 Thursday game with Tennessee.