By Steve Megargee/The Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Mississippi State coach Rick Ray didn’t understand some of the compliments his team received this season even as it struggled through a 13-game losing streak.
“You’re not supposed to get a gold ribbon for playing hard,” Ray said Wednesday night after his 13th-seeded Bulldogs defeated No. 12 seed South Carolina 70-59 in the first round of the Southeastern Conference tournament. “This is what you’re supposed to do. I’m always amazed when people talk about how hard we play. We’re supposed to do that.”
Ray’s injury-riddled Bulldogs are still playing hard.
They’re also finally starting to play well.
Fred Thomas, one of three freshmen in Mississippi State’s starting lineup, scored a career-high 21 points as the Bulldogs beat South Carolina and advanced to a second-round game with No. 5 seed Tennessee (19-11).
Mississippi State (10-21) has bounced back from its 13-game skid to win three of its last four. The Bulldogs heard criticism during the losing streak that their team might rank among the worst in SEC history. By avoiding the bottom seed in the tournament and advancing to the second round, they at least have put that notion to rest.
“If you finish 13th (out of 14 teams) in the season, you can’t be the worst team ever in SEC history,” Ray said. “That pretty much solves all that.”
Colin Borchert and Roquez Johnson scored 11 points apiece and Gavin Ware added 10 for Mississippi State.
Bruce Ellington scored 13 points and Laimonas Chatkevicius matched a career high with 11 points for South Carolina (14-18), which lost five of its last six in the first season of Frank Martin’s coaching tenure.
South Carolina’s Brenton Williams, who had scored a career-high 38 points in a 79-72 victory over Mississippi State on March 6, shot 2 of 13 and had just six points Wednesday.
“The job is a long and hard one, and I fully understand that,” Martin said. “We’re not ready to take any shortcuts because that doesn’t help you get anywhere.”
Mississippi State has dealt with all kinds of injuries in Ray’s debut season.
Junior guard Jalen Steele and freshman guards Andre Applewhite and Jacoby Davis tore anterior cruciate ligaments. Senior forward Wendell Lewis fractured a right patella tendon. Steele ranked second on the team with 10.1 points per game. Lewis averaged 8.1 points in just eight games before getting hurt.
Yet the Bulldogs never gave up on the season even as the losses piled up. That perseverance is paying off now.
“We just had to slow it down a little bit and just go out there and grind,” Borchert said. “We’re not that talented a team, but we can work hard. We can control that. That’s the one thing that we’ve been doing, is going out there and controlling how hard we work.”
After the game went back and forth for the first nine minutes, Mississippi State took control by going on a 13-0 run to break a 13-13 tie. Thomas scored eight points during that spurt by hitting a pair of 3-pointers and two free throws.
Mississippi State led 32-21 at halftime and stayed in front by at least four points the rest of the night.
“We did a real bad job of passing the ball,” Martin said. “We never attacked their zone. I don’t want to get to our inability to do things. It’s more about Mississippi State. They did a great job. They played with tremendous character and enthusiasm. They’re a bunch of freshmen who dealt with adversity all year.”
Mississippi State got unexpected production from 3-point range. The Bulldogs were last in the SEC in 3-pointers per game (4.7) and 3-point percentage (.281) during the regular season, but they went 7 of 15 from beyond the arc Wednesday while South Carolina was 6 of 31.
Thomas led the way by going 4 of 8 from 3-point range.
“Coach told me to come out with some energy and play hard,” Thomas said. “I guess it carried over to my offensive game.”
South Carolina cut Mississippi State’s lead to 60-56 on a Williams 3-pointer with 4:09 remaining, but Mississippi State answered with six straight points. Thomas sank a 3-pointer and made two free throws during that game-clinching spurt.
Mississippi State faces a major challenge Thursday against Tennessee, which has won eight of its last nine games and enters the SEC tournament as the hottest team in the conference.
The Bulldogs very well could get outscored. Ray plans to make sure they don’t get outworked.
“I really believe that’s got to be the staple of our program,” Ray said. “We’ve got to make sure we go out and outwork other people. I tell our guys every single time our goal is to play harder than the other team, play tougher than the other team and play smarter than the other team. Because we’re so young and inexperienced, a lot of times we don’t play smarter than the other team, but I thought for the most part throughout the season we continued to play harder and tougher than the other team.”