January 10, 2013 2:55:32 AM
STARKVILLE -- At one point during Mississippi State University 56-54 victory to open Southeastern Conference, the home bench looked more similar to a emergency medical facility.
At one point late in the second half, as many as three different MSU players were sprawled out on the bench battling through cramps in their legs. For a team with just nine active players, seven of which are on scholarship at MSU, the Bulldogs depth didn't need to be missing key components in a game that never got higher than a four-point deficit in the final five minutes.
"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'," MSU coach Rick Ray said.
During the final media timeout of the Bulldogs win against the University of South Carolina Wednesday night, MSU (6-7, 1-0 in SEC play) had trainer Scotty Johnson working on the left leg cramps of freshman guard Craig Sword and sophomore guard Trivante Bloodman while team physician Dr. Mark Mabry was evaluating the condition of junior guard Jalen Steele.
Steele, who was in the starting lineup for the first time since suffering a fractured left wrist in a Nov. 13 victory over Florida Atlantic University, was the first player to come out of Wednesday night's contest due to severe pain in his left leg.
The junior guard, who finished with four points, three rebounds and two steals in 20 minutes of action, was given not only a numbing agent in his left thigh but an aspirin tablet and fluids while on the MSU bench. Steele was unable to return to the game for the final 10 minutes and 24 seconds despite walking to the scorers table late in the contest but to only be pulled back by Ray and the MSU staff.
"Coach has said that if we knew who we're going in for in a situation then we're okay to check back in," Steele said after the victory. "I wanted to give it a try late in the game but it wasn't the right situation."
In his first SEC game, Sword led MSU with 18 points and 10 points in the final 10 minutes of action despite being nearly able to move following falling on the court for a second time Wednesday evening.
"The thing that's hard with Craig is he's the one guy we know can get by if we draw something up for him," Ray said. "Down the stretch there he was huge for us because he continually got the ball into the paint."
Bloodman, who spent most of the second half nursing four fouls, also had to monitor a persistent cramping issue even while trying to run down USC junior point guard Bruce Ellington. Bloodman, a community college transfer from Olney (Ill.) Central College, had two points, two rebounds and two assists in 22 minutes.
"A lot of credit goes to Rick and his kids because I thought they played real hard," South Carolina coach Frank Martin said. "With all the adversity they've felt with their personnel and roster, they deserve a lot of credit for getting through all that tonight."
With another SEC matchup looming Saturday afternoon in Athens, Ga., MSU will take on the University of Georgia hoping to snap a seven-game losing streak outside the state of Mississippi. Ray knows and acknowledged after the game that the current cramping issue can't be a consistent problem with the Bulldogs so undermanned in terms of active players on the roster.
"I'll sit down with Scotty (Johnson) and figure out if we need to get (Steele) some more electrolytes 24 hours in advance (of the game)," Ray said. "You can't have that happen. We've got to figure out a way to combat that."
Cunningham assigned to defend South Carolina football-basketball star Ellington: Former Columbus High School star player and graduate Tyson Cunningham was given the less than enviable task Wednesday of shutting down the USC's most dynamic player.
Not a normal assignment for a walk-on that is two years removed from being a practice player for the MSU women's team.
"Tyson Cunningham is a company guy and whatever the company needs, he's going to do it," MSU coach Rick Ray said. "When he gets done playing basketball here at Mississippi State, somebody should hire him. He's going to be a company guy. You never have to worry about what's going on in terms of loyalty and getting work done."
Cunningham currently averages 22.8 minutes per contest after receiving nothing more than garbage time in his first two seasons as a walk-on in the MSU program.
Cunningham, who finished Wednesday's SEC opening victory over South Carolina with no points but three rebounds and three steals in 19 minutes, forced Ellington into two turnovers in the final four minutes. The 6-foot-4 guard, who Ray refers to him as "the team's best defender" also managed to block the final shot attempt for Ellington with a second left on the clock and MSU only up two points.
"Chicken (Craig Sword) was cramping up, Trivante (Bloodman) had four fouls and so we wanted somebody to go up there and put pressure on the basketball," Ray said. "Chicken couldn't do it because he was cramping up and we didn't want Trivante to get his fifth foul. It was actually the functionality of it, too that forced the situation."