Young Bulldogs grind out victory

By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal

STARKVILLE – Craig Sword was limping the whole second half, but he gritted his teeth, and Mississippi State gutted out a big win Wednesday night.
The Bulldogs used some tenacious defense in the final five minutes to take a 56-54 win over South Carolina in both teams’ SEC opener at Humphrey Coliseum. Sword, a freshman guard, led the way with 18 points despite hurting his ankle and battling cramps.
His two free throws gave State (6-7, 1-0 SEC) a 54-52 lead with 41.8 seconds left, and he added a dunk off a South Carolina turnover 15 seconds later.
“I just fought through it,” Sword said during the postgame as he propped his iced-down right leg on a chair. “Scotty (Johnson, trainer) told me to keep running on it and it won’t keep locking up, so I just kept running and playing D.”
Sword wasn’t the only Bulldog suffering. Jalen Steele and Trivante Bloodman also suffered from cramps, and with only an eight-player rotation, first-year coach Rick Ray had limited options.
“Guys were coming, like, I need a sub. And I’m like, there are no subs. We had to find a way to persevere,” Ray said.
MSU trailed 50-44 with just over five minutes to go, and Ray could see his players hanging their heads. He reminded them to focus on defense, not offense.
South Carolina then went scoreless for over four minutes, and State took a 52-50 lead with 3:22 to go on a Fred Thomas layup, which resulted from a Tyson Cunningham steal.
“During the last couple of games, coaches said play every defensive possession like it’s your last,” Sword said. “So me and Fred got together and said, we’ve got to put pressure on the ball.”
South Carolina committed 24 turnovers, and MSU turned those into 28 points. Thomas had five steals, while Colin Borchert had four blocks.
Brian Richardson led the Gamecocks with 20 points, and he had the hot hand in the second half. But he missed what would have been a game-tying jumper at the buzzer.
One for the show
This was a big win for MSU and Ray, who’s got a very young team and just seven healthy scholarship players.
“What we do in practice, we have to show that we can do it on the court coming in a game,” Steele said. “And today we definitely showed what’s been going on in practice, and everything we do in practice was ready to show on the court today.”
MSU shot 38.8 percent overall, including 47.8 percent after halftime. State made 18 of 25 free throws.
Roquez Johnson scored 14 for MSU.
brad.locke@journalinc.com