STARKVILLE, Miss. — Rick Ray’s message was succinct when the final minutes turned tense in Mississippi State’s Southeastern Conference opener.
Don’t worry about the ugly offense — it’s defense that will win the game.
The Bulldogs listened and the result was a 56-54 victory over South Carolina on Wednesday in a choppy game that featured more than 40 combined turnovers but was a thing of beauty for a program trying to grow in Ray’s first season as coach.
“That’s just the way conference basketball is,” Ray said. “It’s lower scoring and it’s a grind.”
Mississippi State’s Fred Thomas slapped the ball away from South Carolina’s Bruce Ellington and then flipped the ball ahead to Craig Sword for an emphatic dunk with 26 seconds left to seal the victory.
It was South Carolina’s 24th turnover of the game. The Gamecocks (10-4, 0-1) had a 50-44 lead with 5:25 remaining, but simply couldn’t take care of the ball against Mississippi State’s pressure, half-court defense.
“We had control of the game and it’s just unfortunate,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said.
Sword led the Bulldogs (6-7, 1-0) with 18 points and Roquez Johnson added 14. Sword shot 6 of 11 from the field and hit 6 of 8 from the free-throw line while adding two assists.
Mississippi State won despite missing all 10 of its 3-point attempts. It’s the first time the Bulldogs haven’t hit a 3-pointer in a game since 2005.
The Gamecocks were 8 of 21 from long range.
South Carolina’s Ellington and Brian Richardson both missed contested 3-pointers in the final seconds. Richardson led South Carolina with 20 points, shooting 7 of 19 from the field, including 5 of 11 from 3-point range
South Carolina looked like it might pull out a win, but the Bulldogs’ pressure defense forced the Gamecocks into consistently bad decisions late. South Carolina’s turnovers fueled several easy Mississippi State baskets in the final minutes and the Bulldogs pushed ahead 52-50 with 3 minutes left.
“We started the game throwing the ball all over the place,” Martin said. “Then we settled down for a while and then in the last few minutes, we went back to throwing the ball all over the place.”
Mississippi State’s offense ranked among the league’s worst during non-conference play, so the slow, half-court game suited the Bulldogs.
But the poor shooting was tough to overcome. Mississippi State shot just 38.8 percent from the field (19 of 49).
Mississippi State has just seven scholarship players because of injuries and attrition. The Bulldogs predictably struggled during non-conference play, including a loss to Alabama A&M that Ray called a “public embarrassment” earlier in the week.
That all made the win over South Carolina even more important and Sword is one of the key players who must improve if Mississippi State wants to be competitive in the SEC. The 6-foot-3 freshman from Montgomery, Ala., has had bouts of good play this season, but also stretches of exasperating turnovers and poor shot selection.
Those problems sometimes surfaced on Wednesday. He had seven turnovers against the Gamecocks, but there was little doubt the good outweighed the bad. Colin Borchert added eight points and four blocked shots.
“Coach said play every defensive possession like it’s your last,” Sword said. “Fred and I got together at the end and made it happen.”
South Carolina’s roster isn’t quite as thin as Mississippi State’s, but is undeniably in transition during Martin’s first season. The problems were obvious in the backcourt, where South Carolina looked confused and overmatched at times.
Mississippi State scored 28 points off the Gamecocks’ 24 turnovers.
Ellington, who was playing football for South Carolina just two weeks ago, showed his rust with nine turnovers. He also added 11 points.
Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP