The head-scratching and wondering exactly how it happened could wait for a day.
Bottom line – South Carolina won.
The Gamecocks smacked Mississippi State 81-68 on Saturday, improving to 14-14 and matching the high of the last five seasons with their fifth SEC win. Foul trouble whittling their nine-man team to hair-follicle levels, USC found enough shots and offensive aggression to beat the physical Bulldogs.
MSU (12-17, 5-11) only hit three field goals in the first 15 minutes of the second half, but Craig Sword triggered a late run. The Gamecocks had survived the fouls and the Bulldogs’ can’t-miss tactic from the line, leading by 17 with 6:20 to go, but Sword scored seven straight points, part of his team-high 26, to make it a game at the under-four timeout.
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USC was backed in a corner. The Gamecocks couldn’t play their usual brand of defense without running into a whistle (there were 49 fouls). A very good night from the 3-point line and elsewhere in the field (46.3 percent) was in danger of being wasted – the Bulldogs wisely began fouling USC, since they had a much deeper bench and the Gamecocks were beginning to miss from the line.
USC was still in control, but needed a spark.
Nowhere better than from a senior who knows the end of his career is approaching too quickly.
Ty Johnson scored 22 of his career-high 28 points in the second half, including eight of the Gamecocks’ final 10 as USC kept extending a lead that was cut from 17 to nine. As the point guard, he was expected to handle the ball; Saturday, he was demanding it knowing that the Bulldogs needed to foul and stop the clock.
“Myself, I know that my time is coming to an end soon,” said Johnson, who sank 13-of-15 free throws. “I just want to take every game like it’s my last. When we play like we played today, like we were earlier in the season, I think we can play with the best of them.”
Johnson and Duane Notice (13 points) also kept finding Laimonas Chatkevicius under the rim, as the big man matched his career-high with 18 points. The junior set the mark in his last game but got no help as USC fell at Alabama; against MSU, Chatkevicius had three assists as his kick-out passes became points.
“Yeah, I do feel confident, but I feel like I need to step up,” Chatkevicius said. “We’re down to not a full team, we’re down some guys.”
Johnson’s two free throws with 1:44 to play put the Gamecocks up 11 and Chatkevicius swatted Sword’s layup. That turned into a Gavin Ware miss and a Sindarius Thornwell rebound, followed by another dribble-clock-and-get-fouled possession from Johnson.
Enough makes iced the game, a strange one where the Bulldogs were missing from the line in the first (2-of-8) and money (17-of-21) in the second. USC shot the ball well and stroked six first-half 3-pointers, including five in a row after missing five in a row, but had its offense untracked by fouls and missed free throws in the second half.
Pretty or the way that it was designed? No. But USC again found out that it can win, despite limited personnel, if it can make shots and doesn’t hang its head when the opponent makes its run.
“Every team’s going to make their run,” Johnson said. “We played like grown men in the second half.”
The Gamecocks were down to their last option – little-used sophomore Reggie Theus – at times but were able to overcome stretches with key buckets from Johnson and Chatkevicius and one more defensive rebound. USC still has a chance to finish at .500 or above, which would avoid the program’s first six-year stretch of losing seasons, but Martin has always preferred to keep the focus on the present.
The Gamecocks were challenged on Saturday and responded. They need to keep doing it.
“I had to buy time,” Martin said. “We had to kind of hope we kept making some shots and play intelligently on offense, and we did and that’s what saved us.”
NOTE: Marcus Stroman missed the game after the throat infection that sidelined him for four games flared back up.
MISSISSIPPI ST. (12-17)
Ware 3-5 4-5 10, R. Johnson 1-2 3-4 5, Thomas 1-4 0-0 3, Ready 3-10 1-3 9, Sword 10-14 4-7 26, Houston 3-4 3-6 9, Bloodman 0-1 2-2 2, Ndoye 1-1 0-0 2, Daniels 0-4 2-2 2, Black 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 22-46 19-29 68.
SOUTH CAROLINA (14-14)
Chatkevicius 8-13 1-3 18, Carrera 2-6 4-7 8, Thornwell 2-8 1-3 7, Johnson 7-10 13-15 28, Notice 4-11 1-2 13, Theus Jr. 0-1 0-0 0, McKie 0-1 0-0 0, Kacinas 2-3 3-4 7, Steele 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 25-54 23-34 81.
Halftime_South Carolina 39-31. 3-Point Goals_Mississippi St. 5-15 (Sword 2-4, Ready 2-5, Thomas 1-2, Daniels 0-4), South Carolina 8-24 (Notice 4-9, Thornwell 2-5, Johnson 1-2, Chatkevicius 1-2, McKie 0-1, Steele 0-1, Theus Jr. 0-1, Carrera 0-3). Fouled Out_None. Rebounds_Mississippi St. 27 (Sword 8), South Carolina 33 (Chatkevicius 9). Assists_Mississippi St. 11 (Ready 7), South Carolina 19 (Notice 5). Total Fouls_Mississippi St. 27, South Carolina 22. Attendance_14,022
*Kentucky 16-0 29-0
Arkansas 12-4 23-6
Texas A&M 11-5 20-8
Georgia 10-6 19-9
LSU 10-6 21-8
Ole Miss 10-6 19-10
Alabama 7-9 17-12
Florida 7-9 14-15
Vanderbilt 7-9 17-12
Tennessee 6-10 14-14
Mississippi State 5-11 12-17
South Carolina 5-11 14-14
Auburn 4-12 12-17
Missouri 2-14 8-21
Georgia 68, Missouri 44
LSU 73, Ole Miss 63
Vanderbilt 73, Alabama 66
Kentucky 84, Arkansas 67
South Carolina 81, Mississippi State 68
Florida 66, Tennessee 49
Texas A&M 80, Auburn 55