South Carolina Falls to Mississippi State
March 13, 2009
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - Those other Bulldogs, the ones led by shot-blocker Jarvis Varnado and his three-point shooting teammates, are making a run in the Southeastern Conference tournament.
Barry Stewart scored a season-high 21 points, most of them from behind the arc, and Mississippi State beat South Carolina 82-68 Friday in the quarterfinals.
The Bulldogs, the third seed in the West, gave the league its first upset of the tournament, something that happened often last year when the struggling Georgia Bulldogs won four games in three days and earned a spot in the NCAA field.
Mississippi State could make it another Bulldog bounty. To do so, though, the Bulldogs will have to knock off No. 20 LSU. The Tigers, the league's regular-season champion, won both meetings this season.
"It'll be a very difficult challenge for us, but we're glad we're around to do it," Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said.
The Bulldogs (21-12) overcame a 10-point deficit to stick around, extending their winning streak to four games and possibly eliminating the Gamecocks (21-9) from NCAA tournament consideration.
South Carolina has lost three of four down the stretch, a skid that could offset the team's strong RPI (No. 49) during the selection process.
"I've been saying for a long time that I don't see how you don't take one of the top three or four teams from the SEC into the NCAA tournament," South Carolina coach Darrin Horn said. "We go back and look at our overall season, and then being divisional co-champs in the East, I think we've proven that we're definitely worthy. But those decisions are beyond our control."
The Gamecocks felt like they let this one slip away. They had a double-digit lead early and a four-point advantage at halftime. But they were completely outplayed in the second half. Stewart did a big chunk of the damage, hitting consecutive threes that put Mississippi State ahead for good.
"He made some tough shots, a couple of them with a hand in his face," South Carolina's Devan Downey said. "He made tough shots when he needed to."
His second one gave the Bulldogs a 58-55 advantage with about 7 minutes to play. Stewart finished 4-of-6 shooting from behind the arc.
"I just felt it," Stewart said. "You know, sometimes you just feel it. When the shot's falling, you just keep shooting. ... I was just feeling it tonight."
Mississippi State finished 8 of 15 from three-point range, and most of them came at key times.
Dee Bost, who finished with 14 points and 10 rebounds, hit one from behind the arc a few minutes after Stewart drained those back-to-back shots. Stewart added two free throws, and Ravern Johnson might have done in South Carolina with a long jumper from the wing that made it 70-61 with 1:56 to play.
Varnado, Mississippi State's inside force who helps create all those outside shots, finished with 12 points, nine boards and six blocks.
Zam Fredrick led the Gamecocks with 20 points. Dominique Archie added 16 points. Downey was 5-of-20 shooting, including 1 of 7 from three-point range, and finished with 11 points. It was an off game for the team's leading scorer. He also was called for an intentional foul in the closing seconds.
But the Gamecocks blamed the loss on defense, especially on the perimeter.
"Our defensive intensity was just lacking in the second half," Downey said. "We didn't do a good job of merging defense, talking, communicating. Everything we did in the first half, it just went out the window in the second half."
Indeed, Mississippi State played much better after the break. The Bulldogs missed 10 of their first 12 shots and trailed 14-4 in the opening minutes.
But Varnado and his three-point shooters got the team on track -- and into the next round.
"We didn't panic," Stansbury said. "We have the potential to score in bunches at times to get back in games. I think our players know that."