TAMPA, Fla. – Barry Stewart was “feeling it” much sooner than people watching the game might have imagined.
Mississippi State’s junior guard didn’t start showing it until the second half when he found another gear offensively, stayed out of foul trouble and scored 21 points to help the Bulldogs rally past South Carolina 82-68 in the SEC tournament quarterfinals Friday at the St. Pete Times Forum.
MSU (21-12) makes its third-straight SEC semifinal appearance at noon today against LSU, which eliminated Kentucky earlier Friday.
Getting to the semis was more work than the 14-point margin might indicate.
South Carolina (21-9) dictated tempo and had the Bulldogs on their heels in a 14-4 run to start the game.
The Gamecocks led 36-32 at halftime, and MSU didn’t take its first lead until Phil Turner’s dunk made it 43-42 with 14 minutes, 57 seconds left to play.
“We were lucky to only be down four points. South Carolina hit us in the mouth, and our bench got us back in the game. It energized us,” MSU coach Rick Stansbury said.
The spark came from backup center Brian Johnson, who had seven points and four rebounds in five first-half minutes. Johnson scored with an offensive rebound on three straight trips, the third keeping the Bulldogs seven back at 18-11.
Stewart, who passed Timmy Bowers for second on the school’s career 3-point field goal list with 198, dropped in a 3-ball at the 8:24 mark to make it a 20-14 deficit. Less than two minutes later he went to the bench with his second foul and stayed there for the remainder of the half.
“When I hit that 3 in the first half I felt good then, but coach had to take me out for other reasons,” Stewart said. “I just felt it, and when you feel it, and your shot’s falling, you have to keep shooting.”
He finished 6-for-11 overall, 4-for-6 from the arc.
South Carolina players could sense Stewart’s confidence rising.
“He hit a couple of step-backs, and you could tell he was feeling it,” Gamecocks guard Zam Frederick said. “He hit a couple of those with hands in his face.
“A couple of times that was me. My hat’s off to him for making big shots.”
Frederick made his share of big shots too, finishing with 20 points and five assists.
Frederick and teammate Devan Downey were frequent visitors inside the lane in the first half, hitting shots and helping teammates as the Gamecocks maintained the edge.
It was when the Bulldogs began to keep the guards out of the lane that things began to turn.
Stansbury credited center Jarvis Varnado for the second-half turnaround in the paint.
Varnado had 12 points, nine rebounds and six blocked shots.
Point guard Dee Bost had a double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds, and State had a 50-36 edge on the glass.
With the penetrate and dish game taken away, the Gamecocks settled for 3-point shots that would not fall.
They were 5-for-22 behind the arc, shooting 22.7 percent on 3-point attempts and 35.5 percent overall.
State was 8-for-15 from 3-point range and has made at least eight 3-point shots in nine straight games.
“Down the stretch we couldn’t get anything to go down,” South Carolina coach Darrin Horn said.
That wasn’t a problem for Stewart.
“It comes down to making shots. That kid, maybe more so than anybody on their team, made some really tough ones and at important times.”
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Parrish Alford/Daily Journal