By JOEL COLEMAN
Tough and tenacious, the Mississippi State defense allowed the Bulldogs to claim yet another victim on their stretch-run surge as MSU topped South Carolina 68-58 on Saturday at Humphrey Coliseum.
Mississippi State had a season-high 13 steals, forced 21 total turnovers and scored 24 points off of those turnovers to claim its third victory over a potential NCAA Tournament team this month.
“That was a great effort for us,” MSU head coach Ben Howland said. “I thought it was our best effort of the year at both ends of the floor for 40 minutes against a very good team. I’m really proud of our guys. Defensively, this was our best sustained efforts for 40 minutes.”
Four Bulldogs scored in double figures. Gavin Ware notched his eighth double-double of the season with 16 points and 12 rebounds. Quinndary Weatherspoon and Craig Sword each added 14 points and Fred Thomas scored 12 to pace the Mississippi State offense. Still, it was the MSU defense that stole the show, frustrating South Carolina all afternoon long.
“A lot of credit goes to Mississippi State,” South Carolina head coach Frank Martin said. “They beat us to the punch. We couldn’t run our offense or execute anything that we spoke about trying to execute.
“They pressured whoever had the ball. They got in the passing lanes. Guys couldn’t get open and couldn’t pass. We started to try to drive the basketball and couldn’t make layups. We tried to call different things and improvise over the course of the game, but give them credit. They fought and protected their home court.”
Perhaps nowhere was MSU’s defensive prowess more evident than in the stat line of South Carolina forward Michael Carrera. Back in January, Carrera scored 34 points and brought down 15 rebounds as the Gamecocks topped the Bulldogs 84-74 in Columbia. On Saturday, MSU limited Carrera to just six points and eight boards.
“We decided to double-team (Carrera) when he got the ball in the post, but also just match his physicalness because he’s a very physical guy,” Ware said. “I told (Sword) and the guys that were holding him, just match his intensity and I’ll be there to help. Just keep him from scoring and getting offensive rebounds. We’re not letting him come in here and score 30-something points on us.”
Only two Gamecocks reached double figures in points against the MSU defensive attack. Sindarius Thornwell scored 12 and Duane Notice tallied 10. It was nowhere near enough though as South Carolina never held a lead and trailed by double digits for the majority of the contest.
Mississippi State (13-15, 6-10) got off to a lightning-fast start. Sword, Travis Daniels and Weatherspoon all nailed 3-pointers in the game’s first five minutes to help give the Bulldogs an early 13-4 advantage. At the 10:49 mark in the first half, a Sword layup gave MSU a 20-9 lead.
South Carolina (23-6, 11-5) wouldn’t get back within single digits again until a pair of Marcus Stroman free throws trimmed the Gamecock deficit to 60-51 with just 1:25 left in the game. Thornwell hit a 3-pointer with nine seconds remaining to pull South Carolina within eight before a Thomas slam dunk iced the game for Mississippi State seconds later, allowing the Bulldogs to fully enjoy the fruits of their defensive effort.
“Right now I think we’re playing our best basketball on the defensive end,” MSU guard I. J. Ready said. “When we play defense and get turnovers and stops, we convert on the other end pretty well. That makes other teams get frustrated on offense and they lack back on defense and that opens it up for us.”
Mississippi State will now ride its late-season momentum into Oxford on Wednesday for a 6 p.m. game at Ole Miss. The first meeting against the Rebels on Jan. 23 marked the beginning of MSU’s current turnaround. Since topping Ole Miss in Starkville that day, Mississippi State is 6-5. The Bulldogs hope the good times keep rolling Wednesday on their instate rival’s home floor.
“We’re just having fun right now,” Sword said.