COLUMBIA, S.C. — After five straight losses, two of them in overtime and two of them to among the worst teams in the Southeastern Conference, Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury just wanted a little bit of good luck.
His wishes were answered as Brian Bryant took an inbounds pass from Dee Bost and made a lay-up at the buzzer to give the Bulldogs a 69-67 overtime win Wednesday night over South Carolina.
“We needed something good to happen to us. We’ve been in this situation two or three different times in this little losing streak we’ve had. Basketball gods were looking after us late in that game,” Stansbury said.
The winning play didn’t go as planned. With 1.7 seconds left, Bost was supposed to lob the ball to Arnett Moultrie.
“When I set the back screen, both the defenders kind of went with Arnett and I just fell to the ball. I knew we had to get a shot up,” Bryant said.
It fell through as the red lights lit up on the backboard. It was Bryant’s 16th point and Bost’s 11th assist.
The Bulldogs needed this win desperately. They started the month ranked 20th in the country, but five straight losses, including to four-SEC-win Georgia and Auburn, had them on the edge of the NCAA tournament. A loss to the SEC’s worst team likely would demolish any chance of an at-large bid, likely leaving Mississippi State out of the tournament for a fourth straight season.
And the team appeared to be sniping at each other. Moultrie, Mississippi State’s leading scorer and rebounder, suggested the team was full of selfish players. When asked if they could bounce back from the losing streak, he said they probably couldn’t.
After the game, Stansbury didn’t let his players answer a question about if Wednesday’s victory could bring the team back together.
“There never was no separation in the locker room. If someone says everybody’s not working as hard as they should, that’s not separation. I think that was positive,” Stansbury said.
With the loss, South Carolina (10-19, 2-13) is guaranteed to finish last in the SEC for the second time in six seasons. The Gamecocks have lost 24 of their last 28 league games.
“Obviously I don’t have a word to articulate how that one makes you feel,” said coach Darrin Horn, who is now 60-61 in four seasons with South Carolina, with his teams winning fewer SEC games in each year.
Bruce Ellington led the Gamecocks with 17 points, but his high-arching short jumper to win the game at the end of regulation was just short. Damontre Harris added 14 points and had 11 rebounds, while senior Malik Cooke added 11 points in his final home game.
Bost added 13 points and Moultrie had 12 rebounds, while Renaldo Sidney added 12 points and 14 rebounds for Mississippi State.
Bost had a key 3-pointer in overtime after Ellington buried a 3 of his own to give the Gamecocks the only lead they would have in the extra period. Mississippi State twice took the lead, but South Carolina answered. Anthony Gill’s putback with 13 seconds to go tied it at 67 in overtime.
As the clock wound down in overtime, Ellington stripped Bost, but his foot was out of bounds, setting up Bryant’s winning shot with 1.7 seconds to go.
“We were supposed to switch everything and make it tough for him. But I guess he got freed up, kind of — miscommunication or something — and he made a good play,” Cooke said.
It’s been a frustrating season for South Carolina. Average paid attendance is down about 1,500 fans with most games seeing less than half of the announced number of fans. Athletic director Eric Hyman has expressed support for Horn, who has a buyout of over $2 million, during the season, but also said he will evaluate the coach as he always does after the season is over.
If South Carolina loses to Georgia on Saturday, it will end the season with the fewest SEC wins since joining the league 20 years ago. The next loss will also give the Gamecocks only their four 20-loss season in 104 years of basketball.
On the other sideline, there was relief. The Bulldogs massed in a group hug after Bryant’s shot went in. Stansbury smiled in relief, walked over to the TV crew announcing the game and told them nothing seems to come easy for his team.
“We had to find a way tonight just to get a win, get back on the winning side of the column,” Stansbury said. “Our guys have been fighting. We’ve had some misfortunes in a couple of games.”