That the Dogs did, surviving a series of lead-changes and tied scores in the final eight minutes to knock off the visiting Gamecocks. In the process Mississippi State bounced back from two damaging defeats last week to go 17-9 overall and 7-4 SEC. For a while it seemed success would also give the Bulldogs renewed hopes of defending their Western Division title, too, until Arkansas' bid to upset loop-leader LSU (now 9-1) fell short in Fayetteville.
For their part South Carolina (18-6, 7-4 SEC) lost both a game and a chance to step ahead in the East. The Gamecocks returned home in a four-way tie for first in that loop. Not that State could think of anything other than their late-season situation going into this one, of course. Guard Phil Turner, top Dog of the day, said the locker-room attitude indeed was must-win.
"And the guys came and practiced these last two days like it was our last game," Turner said. "I think that's important for the rest of our season, to be competitive for the NCAA tournament."
Of course any sort of tournament talk is likely premature at this point. Still State was able to rise to this occasion, at least after intermission. Because in the opening period neither team looked or functioned like a squad with post-season potential. "The first half I didn't think either team was very good," Stansbury said. "I thought both teams were sluggish and not playing as well as either team could . I know our team was not."
What happened after halftime was a better defensive approach by the Bulldogs, primarily on Gamecock guard Devan Downey; and just plain better shooting at the other end. After going 2-of-9 at the arc in the first period State hit on 7-of-17 attempts in the second.
"It was important to get some energy and life into what we were doing," Stansbury said. "We made some threes and it got us going." Beginning with guard Ravern Johnson, who snapped out of a three-game slump to hammer home a trio of treys after halftime. The soph finished with four longballs and a team-high 20 points. It wasn't so much his own doing, Johnson said, but what the Gamecocks didn't do defensively.
"This team runs a box-and-one and didn't have one man focused on me. They kept double-doing down on Jarvis (Varnado) and he kept kicking it out , I got a lot of open shots."
So did Turner with a couple of threes and five more baskets en route to 16 points. But he did much more than score, slashing through traffic for a career-high 14 rebounds and earning credit for six of the ten State steals. Had he ever put up such a stat-line before? "Maybe in Rec League!" he grinned about his third career double-double. "But not in real basketball."
Point guard Dee Bost added 14 points and guard Barry Stewart 10 more for State, with nine assists between them. South Carolina got 19 from the splendid Downey, a dozen of that in the second half. But, Stansbury said, when Downey was having to do all the scoring or more specifically take all the shots his team was playing into State's plans that period.
"We controlled him not as much scoring but creating. Dee did a better job keeping him so deep in the lane, and our post guys did a better job not coming to help so soon." Thus Downey managed only four assists and turned the ball over five uncharacteristic times. He also missed 14 of his 21 shots, many of them forced in traffic and over Varnado's long arm. The State center blocked four balls in all.
"I thought we did a really poor job the second half of finding guys," SC Coach Darrin Horn said. "They (State) just kind of rose up and shot the ball and got too comfortable, and they're too good a shooters to let that happen."
Neither side looked so very good early on as only Downey seemed up to any speed and both coaches were subbing soon, looking for some sort of working combinations. Fortunately Stansbury chose to leave Bost and Johnson on the floor a little longer and they kept State within a shot or two. Dog defense was another matter as center Mike Holmes and Downey worked the paint for points and a 23-13 lead.
State reassembled the starting group and Turner saved the day, for the first time, with seven-straight points. Still had the Gamecocks done a bit better at the free throw line—or hit anything from outside—the halftime lead would have been more than 37-33. "We were lucky," Stansbury said.
It wasn't luck though when Bost and Johnson each struck for threes and State jumped into a first lead of 41-38. "It was a big confidence booster," said Johnson. "As the game went on I had to keep shooting, it was a big game for us." A rebound dunk from Turner and Stewart threefer had the Dogs looking good with a seven-point cushion six minutes into the period. Only Downey rising to the challenge, beating coverage for a fastbreak and hitting his team's first trey at 12:54, kept State from taking control. He added another longball that had S.C. back in front 49-47, before R.Johnson returned the favor.
The scoreboard tilted back and forth until Stewart broke a 65-65 deadlock with free throws. This time South Carolina had no answer; with the perimeter defended Holmes tried to go baseline but, worried about Varnado, fumbled it away. The next minute settled the course of the game, as Turner missed consecutive shots; the first caroming off a Gamecock foot out of bounds, the second chased down by Bost. Catching the pass on the right wing Turner was again open, and didn't hesitate.
The trey-try swished at 47.6. "Sometimes you know it's the nail in the coffin," Turner said, "everybody exhaled after that shot." His coach certainly breathed easier after the third try was the charm. "He needed to make that last one!" Stansbury said. "That's the one you remember."
S.C. guard Brandis Raley-Ross cut a couple off with his driving pop at 35.1, but Bost matched that with free shots and forward Dominique Archie missed a top-trey that was his team's last true chance. Archie, Ross, and guard Zam Fredrick all had 11 points while Holmes netted 10. The Bulldogs were out-shot for the evening but still won, partly by winning the rebound battle 45-42. Turner's work on the glass was crucial. "It was just going for it, just jumping up and trying to get them," he said. It allowed the Dogs to succeed despite shooting under 40%.
"We got out-scrapped and out-rebounded," said Downey. "Tonight they were the tougher team. They wanted it more."
Though disappointed by word of LSU's late rally, the Bulldogs still got most of what they wanted Wednesday by stopping the two-game slide. Now they look to begin a better sort of streak, going to Alabama for a Saturday afternoon matchup. Though it's understandable if they wish it were another East opponent on the slate, the next such opportunity coming in a week when Tennessee visits.