In a must-win game to make the NCAA Tournament, Mississippi State University men’s basketball (21-8, 9-7 SEC) won a 72-68 overtime battle against the University of South Carolina Gamecocks (15-14, 6-10) Saturday afternoon.
The win gave MSU the season sweep over South Carolina and the Bulldogs’ first sweep of a team this season.
MSU scored first, but could not get anything going offensively for most of the first half. South Carolina went on an 11-point run over five minutes and even after MSU scored again, it took another four minutes to get another basket.
The Gamecocks had their largest lead of the game with six minutes left in the half, leading by 13, but the Bulldogs’ defense is what kept them in the game. Redshirt freshman forward Abdul Ado had two massive blocks and South Carolina turned the ball over eight times. MSU cut the lead to four with 2:30 left in the half, but within the last 2:30, South Carolina widened the lead again, and MSU went into the locker room trailing by seven.
When the second half began, it looked like more of the same for the Bulldogs. They were unable to capitalize on the defensive stops they got early in the half, but with 10 minutes left in the game junior guard Quinndary Weatherspoon got a steal and cut South Carolina’s lead to three. Three minutes later, a South Carolina turnover allowed freshman guard Nick Weatherspoon to shoot a three and put MSU up 49-47.
South Carolina head coach Frank Martin acknowledged his team’s second-half offensive woes after the game.
“That’s been our downfall all year,” Martin said. “Our inability to be consistently good on offense,”
After the Bulldogs secured the lead, they never trailed again. MSU took advantage of the momentum shift, but South Carolina battled back to tie the game 62-62 on a last second 3-point buzzer beater from South Carolina Guard Hassani Gravett at the end of regulation.
The Bulldogs did not let up in overtime and was able to maintain their lead, though several mistakes. Ultimately, MSU was able to come out with the win despite the close game at the end.
The physicality of this game was striking, South Carolina is known for their physical defense, and at times it got the better of the Bulldogs.
“South Carolina was the more physical team, hands down, anyone could see that,” sophomore guard Lamar Peters said.
While Peters led the team in scoring and assists, with 19 points and five assists, it was sophomore guard Eli Wright’s eight points, one assist, and 14 minutes that made Howland call him the player of the game.
While Wright’s stats may not look impressive, Howland cited his impact on the game as the most important of any player.
This game was hugely important for MSU’s chances of going to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009. While the Bulldog’s chances of getting in are currently slim, it is widely believed they will need to finish the rest of the season on a win streak and make a splash in the SEC tournament to have a chance.
However, Howland and his players disagreed on how much attention they paid to the stakes.
“For two weeks now, we’ve been focused on going to the tournament for two weeks straight,” Peters said.
Howland said he is focused on next Tuesday when MSU takes on Tennessee in Starkville, “everything is about Tuesday,” Howland said.
MSU next plays the University of Tennessee (21-7, 11-5 SEC), who sits in second place in the conference, at 6 p.m. Tuesday in Starkville. The SEC Network will televise it and WatchESPN will stream it. Admission is free for students. It is a must win for MSU to get into the tournament.