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LIVING BY THE SWORD: Frantic finish sends Bulldogs past Gamecocks in SEC opener

 

Matthew Stevens

 

STARKVILLE -- Don't tell Mississippi State University men's basketball coach Rick Ray Wednesday night was ugly basketball. 

 

After his team's 56-54 win in the Southeastern Conference opener against the University of South Carolina, Ray maintained this brand of the sport is what college basketball has simply become in 2013. MSU has only won five games since 2002 when neither team on the floor scores at least 60 points in the game. An announced crowd of 4,054 saw Ray unveil a new era of MSU basketball in a league not known for a grind-it-out defensive style of play. 

 

"That's just the way conference basketball is," Ray said. "The way basketball is anymore is low scoring and grinding it out. That's the way we're going to have to do it all the time -- not just this year." 

 

MSU (6-7, 1-0 in SEC play) used a final five-minute stretch of defense where they held the Gamecocks to just one field goal and forced five turnovers to secure the victory. 

 

In a unbelievably frantic final stretch where three different MSU players had to come out of the game due to leg cramps (junior guard Jalen Steele, sophomore guard Trivante Bloodman and freshman guard Craig Sword), it was Ray that had to find some calmness in a game that featured more turnovers (41) than made field goals (39) between both teams. 

 

"When you come down the stretch in a tight ball game, you have to have some sort of calmness to the situation," Ray said. "You got assistant coaches in your ear saying 'we need to sub out this guy, run this play' and there's some many things going on but I looked at everybody and said 'calm down'." 

 

South Carolina (10-4, 0-1) came to Starkville averaging the most turnovers per game in the SEC (17.8) and the addition of Bruce Ellington, who had been a wide receiver and kick returner on the Gamecocks football team, didn't help matters much in that department. 

 

The junior, who caught the game-winning touchdown in the 2013 Outback Bowl win against the University of Michigan, finished with a career high nine turnovers including a critical one coming out of a timeout with 32 seconds left and USC down two. MSU freshman guard Fred Thomas was able to poke the ball away from Ellington and the play led to a wide-open dunk for Sword, who ended the night with a career high 18 points. 

 

"We just had bad turnovers," South Carolina coach Frank Martin said. "We gave up way too many easy baskets because of our inability to pass the basketball to the guys on our team." 

 

South Carolina finished the game with 24 turnovers, which is still one short of a season high when they gave the basketball away 25 times in a 74-67 overtime win against Missouri State on Nov. 24 in a non-conference tournament in Mexico. 

 

With 10 minutes and 24 seconds left in contest, MSU trainer Scotty Johnson essentially never sat back down. Steele, Bloodman and Sword would leave the game, sometimes all at the same time, with various cramping issues in their legs. After the game, emergency medical trainers were waiting for the players to immediately administer intravenous fluids to them at the Humphrey Coliseum. 

 

"The guys did a good job of persevering because there was times I was looking for a guy to sub in and guys are coming (to me) saying 'I need a sub' and I had to say 'there are no subs'," Ray said. 

 

MSU outscored South Carolina Wednesday night in bench scoring (22-11) despite having a smaller bench of players to turn to and in the paint (34-20) even factoring in the lack of a dominate post threat offensively. The Bulldogs simply turned to the dribble penetration of Sword, who had his third double-figure scoring effort in his last four games. Sword had nine points in that final 10-minute stretch where he constantly had his leg massaged by the MSU training staff during timeouts. 

 

"Scotty (Johnson) told me to keep running on it so it wouldn't lock up and so my only option was to keep running," Sword said. 

 

MSU's leading scorer Roquez Johnson came off the bench for the third straight game to provide a double-figure scoring effort of 14 points in 26 minutes of action. Johnson got most of his production from the foul line as the 63 percent foul shooter went 8-for-10 from the charity stripe in the first half. 

 

A docile Humphrey Coliseum crowd exploded at the 3 minute, 38 second mark when Johnson's game-tying layup was followed by MSU guard Tyson Cunningham stealing the inbounds pass and feeding Thomas for a lay-in to give MSU a 52-50 advantage. 

 

"We were in a media timeout and the kids were really down in the huddle," Ray said. "I told them to not worry about their offense and to worry about stops. Down six points with six minutes to go means all you have to do is make up a point a minute. We knew we could do that if we could get their heads back up." 

 

MSU will try to end its seven-game losing streak away from the state of Mississippi, which dates back to the 2011-12 season, when they hit the road for a matchup with the University of Georgia Saturday for a 12:30 p.m. in Athens, Ga., and will be televised regionally by the SEC Network. 

 

"We are beginning to do a better job of taking what we learn in practice out to the court on game day," Steele said after the game. "You saw out there tonight what we had been working for the last couple of days in practice. It feels good to see the hard work paying off."

 

 

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