“Sadly and unfortunately, we couldn’t close the deal,” Mississippi State’s coach said.
Sad and unfortunate indeed. Because #19-ranked South Carolina could. Close, that is, using an 11-3 stretch surge to escape some upset-minded Bulldogs 77-73. The Gamecocks left still tied for the SEC lead at 10-2 and 20-5 overall.
Mississippi State walked off their own court frustrated. Or further frustrated. Coming after their 98-92 Tuesday loss the Bulldogs know how close they are to some sort of breakout win.
“Real close,” agreed guard Tyson Carter.
This one was closer in so many ways. The Bulldogs didn’t fall behind too far in a first half, the largest deficit being nine points. They even grabbed a couple of second-half leads, last at 5:17 with a 64-63 advantage.
The rest of the contest showed not only why South Carolina is ranked, but what a team led by veterans could do against a freshman/sophomore-dominated Mississippi State squad. “We’ve been in those situations,” Gamecock guard Sindarius Thornwell said. “Not wanting to lose two in a row kept us motivated.”
In fact South Carolina showed poise by setting aside their four-overtime home loss to Alabama and taking care of these feisty Bulldogs. Barely. “Obviously, a disappointing loss for us,” Howland said. “Because we had a great opportunity.”
That opportunity was created by an unlikely candidate. Freshman Carter had scored just 36 points in his eleven SEC games. In just the last three contests the kid was 3-of-21 shooting. What Carter did to South Carolina belied all their scouting.
Subbing-in at 17:02 of the first half with his team down 10-2 already, Carter needed just 15 seconds to knock down a three. It was nearly nine more minutes and after another spell sitting that Carter pulled on another, and hit it.
Then another, and another. By halftime Carter was up to 16 points with four treys and 6-of-7 shooting. “It was some open spots in the defense. I just knocked down open shots.”
Carter’s quick-strike production and better Bulldog defense resulted in a 36-36 halftime deadlock, though Howland said “We should have had a lead” since State was shooting better and battling on the boards. The difference? South Carolina had many more trips to the free throw line, a trend which only accelerated after intermission.
Mississippi State also had no good answer to Thornwell, who had as many points as he did first half minutes with 19. Howland says the Gamecock big guard is the lead candidate for SEC player of the year, and Thornwell made the coach look correct with 28 total points, three treys and four assists.
By contrast top Dog scorer Quinndary Weatherspoon endured a miserable evening with a season-low five points. He didn’t get on the board until 1:22 remained and that on a free throw. Weatherspoon still got five rebounds with five assists, but he only took five total shots.
“I think the second foul (at 13:07 first half) really threw him off,” Howland said.
South Carolina still never could gain control. Forward Mario Kegler carried the second-half load by mixing good outside looks with strong inside moves. Carter cooled down quickly though this had more to do with his being forced to handle the ball. Senior point guard IJ Ready missed a fourth-straight game entirely and starting point Lamar Peters struggled through 19 minutes, twice leaving with obvious pain.
“It really hurt us in the second half,” Howland said. “He was creating shots off the ball, that was a bad break.” South Carolina also switched to a zone down the stretch that made lack of a real quarterback that much more obvious.
And still at the five-minute mark the Bulldogs led after Kegler’s next-to-last basket. Duane Notice answered with a three and after Carter missed one of his long tries Maik Kotsar laid the ball in after shuffling the feet for all but the officiating crew to see.
Howland had spent pre-half time venting at the referees already, and the whole second half did nothing to improve his opinion. South Carolina ended up 17-of-29 on the stripe; the home team just 8-of-12. “We didn’t get to the line enough,” said Howland with restraint.
Thornwell made sure there could be no late comeback, stealing-and-scoring at 2:52and popping a jumper at 0:54. Yet Howland thought State could have absorbed that. It was forwards Chris Silva and Kotsar combining for 25 points that mattered. “Really, their front line was dominant,” Howland said.
According to Kegler, “We just broke down on defense. They were running their sets to a T and we broke down, got out of pocket, and they got some open shots.”
“A lot of credit to Mississippi State,” said USC Coach Frank Martin. “Ben is doing a great job, they’re so much better than back in December. We had to hold on for dear life.”
Now a couple of games under SEC .500 for the first time, Mississippi State faces three rough weeks if the Dogs intend to break-even in league play. They are at Georgia this Tuesday for a 8:00ct match; then next Saturday host top-20 Florida at 1:00.