NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Fred Thomas scored a career-high 21 points Wednesday night as No. 13 seed Mississippi State defeated No. 12 seed South Carolina 70-59 in the first round of the Southeastern Conference men’s basketball tournament.
Mississippi State (10-21) advanced to a second-round game Thursday against No. 5 seed Tennessee (19-11). The Bulldogs have won three of their past four games, though they had lost 13 straight before that.
Mississippi State coach Rick Ray didn’t understand some of the compliments his team received as it struggled through a 13-game losing streak.
“You’re not supposed to get a gold ribbon for playing hard,” Ray said Wednesday. “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.”
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, which has lost five of its past six.
South Carolina’s Brenton Williams, who had scored a career-high 38 points in a 79-72 victory over Mississippi State on March 6, shot 2-of-13 and had just six points Wednesday.
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, one of three freshmen in the Bulldogs’ starting lineup, scored eight points during that spurt by hitting a pair of 3-pointers and two free throws.
Damien Leonard ended a six-minute scoring drought for South Carolina by hitting a jumper and followed that with a 3-pointer that cut Mississippi State’s lead to 26-18, but the Bulldogs quickly recovered. Mississippi State led 32-21 at halftime and stayed in front by at least four points the rest of the night.
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.
“Coach told me to come out with some energy and play hard,” Thomas said. “I guess it carried over to my offensive game.”
South Carolina cut Mississippi State’s lead to 60-56 on a Williams 3-pointer with 4:09 remaining, but Mississippi State then scored six straight points.
Wednesday’s victory represented a step forward for a Mississippi State program that has battled all kinds of injuries in coach Rick Ray’s debut season.
Junior guard Jalen Steele and freshman guards Andre Applewhite and Jacoby Davis tore anterior cruciate ligaments. Senior forward Wendell Lewis fractured a right patella tendon. Steele ranked second on the team with 10.1 points per game. Lewis averaged 8.1 points in just eight games before getting hurt.
Texas A&M 71, Auburn 62: Elston Turner scored 22 points even with his broken left pinkie wrapped up in a splint for Texas A&M.
Texas A&M (18-14) came to the tournament having lost four of five. But the 11th-seeded Aggies drew the SEC’s last-place team in Auburn, and now they will play sixth-seeded Missouri at 9 p.m. Thursday in a matchup of the former Big 12 teams.
Alex Caruso added 14 points, and Kourtney Roberson and Fabyon Harris had 11 apiece for Texas A&M.
The Auburn Tigers (9-23) wrap up the season losing their last 10 games and now have lost 11 straight in Nashville. Coach Tony Barbee has yet to win a tournament game in his first three trips. Frankie Sullivan scored a team-high 19 points, and Chris Denson added 15 points.