March 14, 2013 5:15:29 AM
From Staff Reports
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Mississippi State found Bridgestone Arena to its liking.
The Bulldogs continued their strong play of late Wednesday night as MSU knocked off South Carolina 70-59 in an opening-round game of the Southeastern Conference Tournament played in the Music City.
Winning a conference tournament opener for the first time in three seasons, No. 13 seed MSU (10-21) will now face fifth-seeded Tennessee (19-11) in a 2:30 p.m. start Thursday in the tournament's second round. The game will be shown regionally on the SEC Network.
"I'm real happy for our players," said MSU head coach Rick Ray, who won his conference tournament coaching debut. "They've been through a lot this season and for them to come down here to Nashville and the SEC Tournament and experience some success and just grind it out and get that win.
"I am just happy for those kids that they just competing out on the court."
The Bulldogs were able to combine a strong night underneath by Gavin Wade and Roquez Johnson with some brilliant 3-point shooting by Fred Thomas to put away the Gamecocks. MSU seized the momentum for good with a 13-0 run midway through the first half.
The Gamecocks did not lead in the final 39 minutes of the contest.
Thomas hit 4-of-8 shots from 3-point range and finished with a career-high 21 points. Again adding his splendid defense, Thomas also had three rebounds, three assists, three blocked shots and five steals in 29 minutes of play. Johnson and Ware were warriors underneath, as Johnson matched a career-high with eight rebounds, while Ware had 10 points and seven rebounds.
"We're not a team that is going to give up," Thomas said. "We keep motivating each other every night we play. It carried over tonight. We're going to get ready for the Tennessee game, should carry over to that game."
Colin Borchert also continued his strong offensive play of late, adding 11 points and eight rebounds, despite battling foul issues.
The Bulldogs shot 46.9 percent from the field, including a 7-of-15 showing from 3-point range. MSU posted a break-even assist-to-turnover ratio, while holding USC to a 19.4 percent night from 3-point range on 6-of-31 shooting. MSU also had 12 steals and five blocked shots.
MSU broke the contest open with a 13-0 run to break away from a 13-13 tie. Thomas hit two treys, while Tyson Cunningham rammed home another during that run.
The Bulldogs hit 6-of-8 shots from 3-point range in the opening half and led 32-21 at the intermission.
In the second half, South Carolina closed within four on two different occasions. However, a critical and-one by Gavin Ware stopped one run and a series of blocked shots by Thomas snuffed another threat. The Bulldogs were 12-of-21 from the free throw line but made enough defensive stops to keep the Gamecocks at bay.
Protecting a 40-36 lead, the Bulldogs found breathing room on a Craig Sword layup, set up by a steal from Johnson. Thomas had a rebound and basket on the game's next possession.
Thomas also followed with another critical 3-point basket when the Bulldogs led 60-56 with 4:10 left in regulation.
For the contest, the Bulldogs hit 23 of 49 shots from the field (46.9 percent), 7 of 15 shots from 3-point range (46.7 percent) and 17 of 27 shots from the foul line (63.0 percent). The Gamecocks hit 24 of 64 shots from the field (37.5 percent), 6 of 31 shots from 3-point range (19.4 percent) and 5 of 7 shots from the foul line (71.4 percent).
South Carolina held a 36-34 rebounding advantage. The Bulldogs had 14 assists and 14 turnovers, while the Gamecocks had 14 assists and 17 turnovers.
Bruce Ellington paced the Gamecocks with 13 points, while Laimonas Chatkevicius added 11 points.
All of the Dispatch MSU Sports Blog readers: feel free to follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/matthewcstevens for up-to-date Mississippi State coverage.
2. Dunkelberg takes to the fiddle for upcoming show ENTERTAINMENT
5. Sounds of Summer set for June 9 kickoff ENTERTAINMENT