By Jeffrey Collins/The Associated Press
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Brenton Williams decided last week he wasn’t ready to give up on South Carolina’s season, shooting dozens of extra shots after the last several practices.
The work paid off as Williams scored a career-high 38 points to lead South Carolina (14-16, 4-13 Southeastern Conference) to a 79-72 win over Mississippi State on Wednesday night.
Williams’ 38 points were the most ever for South Carolina in an SEC game and the second-most in the league this year. Elston Turner scored 40 for Texas A&M against Kentucky in January. The junior made 10 of his 17 field goals, including 6 of 9 3-pointers. He also made all 12 of his free throws, including four in the final minute for the highest scoring night for a Gamecock in 26 years.
“When I made my first couple of shots, my teammates during a timeout told me, ‘Stay aggressive. We are going to get you good looks. We have confidence that you are going to make more,’” Williams said.
The Gamecocks won for just the second time in 11 games to climb out of last place in the SEC.
Craig Sword led Mississippi State with 20 points. The Bulldogs (8-21, 3-14) have lost 13 of their last 14 games and will have to beat Auburn on Saturday for a chance to move out of last place in the SEC. They need two more wins to avoid becoming the first SEC team with fewer than 10 victories since Georgia in 2004-05.
Mississippi State came in as the SEC’s worst shooting team at 39.7 percent a game, but the Bulldogs shot 51.1 percent (24 of 47) against the Gamecocks, even after missing eight of their first 10 shots in the second half. But Mississippi State turned the ball over 20 times.
Jalen Steele scored 17 points before limping off the court with five minutes left for the Bulldogs. Doctors will check the severity of the injury Thursday.
Bulldogs coach Rick Ray left the arena without talking to reporters.
South Carolina made 28 of 35 free throws, including 11 of 14 in the final 2:15, as the Gamecocks snapped a seven-game losing streak against the Bulldogs.
No one else for South Carolina scored in double figures. But the Gamecocks had 18 assists on 21 baskets.
“Guys were not selfish. Guys made extra passes. Then when Brent had those cracks, he took advantage of it,” Gamecocks coach Frank Martin said.
South Carolina led 37-35 early in the second half before scoring 13 straight points to take a 50-35 lead.
The Gamecocks’ advantage would climb to 22, but Mississippi State got back in it by scoring 14 straight points to trail 68-63 with 2:37 left.
“We got tentative instead of continuing to attack,” said Martin, pointing out six of South Carolina’s 13 turnovers came in the final 6:03.
But Williams came to his team’s rescue. He stopped the run with two free throws with 2:15 left and the Bulldogs would never get closer than five points the rest of the way. Martin also noted two rebounds in the final two minutes.
“I saw Brent Williams go grab some defensive rebounds like he was a guy who wanted to win the game. He had two of them he jumped to the moon to get them,” Martin said.
Wednesday’s game matched up two teams that started the day in last place in the SEC. That wasn’t much of a surprise. Both the Bulldogs and Gamecocks have first-year coaches who were handed massive rebuilding jobs. South Carolina finished last in the SEC last season and Mississippi State lost all of its starters. The Gamecocks were picked to finish 13th and the Bulldogs were picked to finish 14th in the league before the season started.
Both teams are locked into playing in the first round of the SEC tournament next Wednesday, needing to win five games to win the title and extend what have been woeful seasons.
But Martin isn’t paying any attention to that yet. The Gamecocks finish the regular season Saturday at Vanderbilt and that’s all the coach plans to talk about this week.
“I don’t speak about postseason play,” Martin said. “We could be ranked No. 1 in the country all year — I wouldn’t say boo about postseason play.”