Then again late February has been prime time for Mississippi State. This last game of the month was the best, too, as Howland’s Bulldogs knocked off visiting South Carolina. Four Dogs scored in double-digits, and the entire squad gave inspired defense to take a 68-58 final.
“That looked like a good team today,” Howland said. “I thought we really looked good.”
Mississippi State (13-15, 6-10 SEC) scored a third win in their last four chances with the lone loss by two points. In the process the Bulldogs have played potential havoc with a trio of NCAA Tournament bubble-clubs, beating Vanderbilt, Alabama, and now South Carolina (23-6, 10-6).
Not that the Bulldogs care if they are playing some sort of SEC spoiler down the stretch. They’re enjoying the program’s first real success in four years.
“This ranks at the top,” said senior center Gavin Ware. “This is the closest we’ve been as far as team chemistry, offensively and defensively.”
It showed Saturday in Humphrey Coliseum as State avenged a ten-point loss in Columbia. Though as Howland pointed out, it was a one-possession game down to the end. That night the Bulldogs could not finish the job.
This day…they took care of business start-to-finish. Mississippi State never trailed, and from 10:49 of the first half held at least a double-digit lead for all but fifteen total seconds.
“They just beat us to the punch,” Gamecock Coach Frank Martin said. “We couldn’t run offense, we couldn’t execute anything we spoke about executing.”
By contrast, “We executed on defense,” guard IJ Ready said. “Throughout practice it was picking up on defense, pressuring the ball. They pressured us at South Carolina so we wanted to do it to them.”
Pressure did not mean full-court, per se. It did mean Ready or anyone playing the point harassing the ball; and jumping into instant double-coverage on Gamecock posts even before they caught a ball. If they caught it at all.
“We forced them into 21 turnovers, and we had 13 steals,” Howland bragged. Those takeaways, or giveaways, included South Carolina fumbles in the paint as Ware and forward Travis Daniels made life miserable for, well, everyone.
“Gavin and Travis were really good at plugging ball screens,” Howland said. “And our doubling the posts were really aggressive.”
Gamecock forward Michael Carrera suffered most from Bulldog aggression. After nearly single-handedly whipping State a month ago with 34 points and 15 rebounds, the SC star struggled on a hostile floor. He was 1-of-8 shooting for six total points in 30 minutes, and turned the ball over three times. His team missed 13 of their first 16 shots.
Carrera also went down briefly on a baseline collision and gimped for part of the first half. His grit didn’t matter. “We decided to double-team when he got the ball in the post,” Ware said. “But also match his physicalness. I told guys match his intensity and I’ll be there to help.”
The Bulldogs didn’t need much help on the scoring end, at least for the decisive first half. State shot 56% by getting the ball around and inside South Carolina’s baffled defense. Guard Craig Sword surprised the Gamecocks with a couple of big threes, and Ware worked inside to make all four of his shots. Both had nine points at the break with a 37-26 lead.
Halftime cooled off everyone but that was still to State’s benefit. The Bulldogs edged on ahead 50-33 by 12:32 and gradually slowed their pace the rest of the way. Only missing several late free throws allowed South Carolina to get under double-digit deficit but by then it was 1:25 left.
Ware led all scorers with 16 points and had a dozen rebounds, his eighth double-double of the season and 20th career. Sword and guard Quindarry Weatherspoon each provided 14 points for the starting lineup; and off the bench guard Fred Thomas stuck some second-half treys en route to 12 points. Daniels may have only had three points, on a first-half trey. But he got to six rebounds, blocked four shots and played the best defensive of his career.
Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice had 12 and 10 points for South Carolina. The only Gamecock strong point was rebounding, and second-chance points were most of their first-half offense. But the Bulldogs actually trumped the bigger SC lineup in paint points; and blew the Gamecocks away in transition 15 points to two.
“When you get turnovers you want to convert them, and I think we did a good job,” point guard Ready said. “They crashed everybody to the glass so once we got the ball we were able to get in transition.”
For the last week of the regular season the Bulldogs transition back to the road, visiting Ole Miss for a 6:00 Wednesday meeting. State won the first round in the annual series 83-77, though the Rebels were missing their top two scorers that afternoon. For the rematch everyone should be available.
Senior Sword figures his team has the right kind of February momentum to begin March, though. “Right now we’re really excited to go play Ole Miss.”