By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
NASHVILLE – Fred Thomas has always had the confidence to shoot. On Wednesday, those shots fell for him.
The freshman guard scored a career-high 21 points to lift Mississippi State past South Carolina, 70-59, in the first round of the SEC Tournament at Bridgestone Arena.
MSU (10-21) will play No. 5 seed Tennessee (19-11) at 2:30 p.m. today.
Thomas made 6 of 12 shots, including 4 of 8 from 3-point range. Entering the game, he was hitting just 23 percent from behind the arc.
He scored eight points during a 13-0 MSU first-half run, when 12th-seeded South Carolina (14-18) was held scoreless for more than six minutes. During one trip up the court, Thomas called for the ball, got it, and swished a 3-pointer.
“I had thought at the beginning of his career he was taking some bad 3s that were contested,” MSU coach Rick Ray said, “but I thought you started to see toward the end of the season, he was taking good shots, he just wasn’t having success. Today he got great looks, and he knocked them down.
“I think that’s the type of shooter we recruited.”
Thomas also had five steals, and he came up big on both ends as MSU, the tournament’s No. 13 seed, turned back every South Carolina push.
The Gamecocks trimmed the lead to four points early in the second half, but consecutive transition buckets by Sword and Thomas pushed it to 44-36.
After South Carolina cut it to 53-47, Thomas hit a 3-pointer off an inbounds pass with 7:30 left. A Brenton Williams 3-pointer cut it to 60-56, but the defense tightened up, and another Thomas three made it 64-56 with 2:06 to go.
“Yeah, I was in the zone,” Thomas said.
The Bulldogs all looked zoned in from the opening tip. They shot 46.9 percent from the field, 7 of 15 from 3-point range, and 17 of 27 from the free throw line.
The Gamecocks shot 37.5 percent, made 6 of 31 from deep and were 5 of 7 on free throws. They committed 17 turnovers, leading to 17 MSU points.
Frank Martin’s team had trouble cracking Ray’s 1-3-1 defense, and MSU wound up with 12 steals.
“We prepared for it, we knew it was coming, we just didn’t take care of the ball as well as we should have,” South Carolina forward Lakeem Jackson said.
MSU got 11 points and eight rebounds each from Colin Borchert and Roquez Johnson, and Gavin Ware added 10 points and seven boards.
“We had a lot of intensity and motivation going into this game,” Ware said. “We weren’t ready to go home for spring break.”
Martin was impressed by the Bulldogs’ energy.
“As a fan of the game, it’s fun to watch a bunch of young kids get through a season and still have so much enthusiasm for the game,” he said.
Bruce Ellington led South Carolina with 13 points.