Mississippi State coach Rick Ray didn’t understand some of the compliments his team received this season even as it struggled through a 13-game losing streak.
“You’re not supposed to get a gold ribbon for playing hard,” Ray said Wednesday night after his 13th-seeded Bulldogs defeated No. 12 seed South Carolina 70-59 in the first round of the SEC tournament. “This is what you’re supposed to do. I’m always amazed when people talk about how hard we play. We’re supposed to do that.”
Ray’s injury-riddled Bulldogs are still playing hard.
They’re also finally starting to play well.
Fred Thomas, one of three freshmen in Mississippi State’s starting lineup, scored a career-high 21 points as the Bulldogs advanced to a second-round game with No. 5 seed Tennessee (19-11).
Mississippi State (10-21) has bounced back from its 13-game skid to win three of its past four.
Colin Borchert and Roquez Johnson scored 11 points apiece and Gavin Ware added 10 for Mississippi State.
Bruce Ellington scored 13 points and Laimonas Chatkevicius matched a career high with 11 points for South Carolina (14-18), which lost five of its last six in the first season of Frank Martin’s coaching tenure.
South Carolina’s Brenton Williams, who had scored a career-high 38 points in a 79-72 victory against Mississippi State on March 6, shot 2 of 13 and had just points Wednesday.
“The job is a long and hard one, and I fully understand that,” Martin said. “We’re not ready to take any shortcuts because that doesn’t help you get anywhere.”
After the game went back and forth for the first nine minutes, Mississippi State took control by going on a 13-0 run to break a 13-13 tie. Thomas scored eight points during that spurt by hitting a pair of 3-pointers and two free throws.
Mississippi State led 32-21 at halftime and stayed in front by at least four points the rest of the night.
“We did a real bad job of passing the ball,” Martin said. “We never attacked their zone. I don’t want to get to our inability to do things. It’s more about Mississippi State. They did a great job. They played with tremendous character and enthusiasm. They’re a bunch of freshmen who dealt with adversity all year.”
Mississippi State got unexpected production from 3-point range. The Bulldogs were last in the SEC in 3-pointers per game (4.7) and 3-point percentage (.281) during the regular season, but they went 7 of 15 from beyond the arc Wednesday while South Carolina was 6 of 31.
Thomas led the way by going 4 of 8 from 3-point range.
South Carolina cut Mississippi State’s lead to 60-56 on a Williams 3-pointer with 4:09 remaining, but Mississippi State answered with six straight points. Thomas sank a 3-pointer and made two free throws during that game-clinching spurt.