COLUMBIA — After 11 straight games of shooting 40 percent or less, South Carolina coach Frank Martin might have thrown up his hands and given up on the Southeastern Conference’s worst shooting team.
But instead, he kept believing in them, and the Gamecocks (14-14, 5-11) finally found their touch in an 81-68 win over Mississippi State on Saturday night.
South Carolina shot 46 percent and that was missing seven of its last eight field goals when the game was pretty much out of hand. It was a surprise for many for a team that was shooting just 35 percent in SEC games.
But it wasn’t for Martin. “What do you tell guys to get them to make shots? Tell them you believe in them,” Martin said.
Mississippi State coach Rick Ray said his Bulldogs (12-17, 5-11) also helped with some poor defense.
“They were uncontested shots. We didn’t do a good job of contesting shots,” Ray said.
Perhaps no one benefited from Martin’s belief and the Bulldogs lack of defensive effort than South Carolina senior guard Tyrone Johnson. He scored a career-high 28 points on 7-of-10 shooting and made 13 of 15 free throws.
“There were gaps wide open and I took them,” Johnson said.
The Gamecocks led for the final 37 minutes of the game, but Mississippi State did cut its deficit to four with 17 minutes to go. Laimonas Chatkevicius then took over, scoring seven of the next eight points to put South Carolina ahead 52-38 with 15 minutes left. The Gamecocks would lead by at least nine the rest of the way.
Chatkevicius tied a career-high with 18 points and had nine rebounds for the Gamecocks.
Mississippi State shot 47.8 percent, but turned the ball over five more times and had five fewer offensive rebounds. Craig Sword led the Bulldogs with 26 points.
South Carolina climbed into 11th place in the SEC with the win. Both teams still need at least one more win in their last two games to have a chance to avoid playing in the first day of the five-day SEC tournament since the league expanded to 14 teams in 2013.
Ray isn’t ready to give that goal up. The Bulldogs finish with ninth-place Vanderbilt and last-place Missouri.
And South Carolina thinks it can also make a late-season surge like in 2014 when the Gamecocks won four of their last six, including two SEC tournament games — the first wins in the league tournament in six seasons.
“When we play like we did today — like we did early in the season — we can play with the best of them,” Johnson said.
South Carolina: Third-year coach Frank Martin needs one more win in the last two SEC games to improve his win total each season with the Gamecocks ... South Carolina has not won more than five SEC games since 2010.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs are 18-11 all-time against South Carolina. The only other SEC team they have a winning record over is Mississippi ... Five SEC wins are already the best for third-year Bulldogs coach Rick Ray.
Craig Sword’s 26 points were just one off his season high. And he impressed Martin.
“God, is Craig Sword good,” Martin said, opening his news conference. “He may be the hardest guard in the league.”
Sword’s coach also praised him. Rick Ray said he was the only Bulldog that really attacked the basket.
Frank Martin was delighted that Tyrone Johnson set a career high. The senior transferred to South Carolina from Villanova before his junior season, but missed half of last season with a broken foot. He’s been up and down this season, scoring 21 against Baylor in the second game, but only averaging 9.2 points a game.
Johnson is the only senior on the roster and Martin said he was glad he had a breakout game before he gets honored Thursday at senior night.
“He played like a guy who understood and was fearless in the moment,” Martin said.
Mississippi State travels to Vanderbilt on Wednesday
South Carolina hosts No. 18 Arkansas on Thursday.