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February 18, 2009STARKVILLE, Miss. -- The 3-point defense went, and so did the winning streak.
South Carolina's slim second-half lead slipped away as Mississippi State connected on a barrage of long balls on Wednesday, rallying the Bulldogs to a 75-70 win. The Gamecocks never went away, but one crucial possession kept the Bulldogs ahead to stay and USC simply ran out of time.
"They got open looks, they beat us on the glass, they beat us to loose balls, they did all the little things that you have to do to win basketball games, especially this time of year," said an under-the-weather coach Darrin Horn. "I'm a little disappointed with how we played in the second half."
With 90 seconds to play, Mississippi State (17-9, 7-4 SEC) was nursing a 67-65 lead and had the ball. Barry Stewart missed a 3-pointer but MSU rebounded. Phil Turner missed a jumper and Dee Bost corralled it.
With the clock under a minute, Stewart fed Turner on the wing. Turner rose and threw the final jolt through the Gamecocks' chances.
"That was a dagger shot," whispered Zam Fredrick.
In more ways than one. USC found out afterwards that the other piece of its bid for first place in the SEC East had happened -- Ole Miss walloped Tennessee 81-65. Had the Gamecocks (18-6, 7-4) beaten MSU, they would have had a one-game lead in the division with five to play.
Instead, they dropped back into a four-way tie for first with the Volunteers, Florida and Kentucky.
"We really wanted to give ourselves a cushion," said guard Devan Downey, who again led USC with 19 points. "This win out here would have given us a cushion.
"I'm disappointed in the way we played. Just got to correct this."
USC finished with its second straight poor game beyond the arc, connecting on just 5-of-17 3-pointers, none in the first half. The Gamecocks again left double-digit points at the free-throw line, missing 10 of 23.
Yet they still had a chance -- a great chance -- to win. After Fredrick canned a 3-pointer and was followed by Sam Muldrow swishing an 18-footer, the Gamecocks led 61-57 with 5:42 to play. They had weathered an MSU charge and had come back from a deficit.
But immediately after their lead, their switches got confused or somebody got left behind or the five on the floor didn't call out the defense. Ravern Johnson and Stewart drilled consecutive 3s and MSU led 63-61, courtesy of USC's holey defense.
"In the first half, we switched and did a really good job of being right there with the shooter," Horn said. "They had at least two in the second half I can remember where we switched and we didn't switch aggressively. They just kind of froze up and shot the ball too comfortably. They're too good a shooting team to let that happen."
"We just weren't communicating on defense, and that was the number-one emphasis coming into this game," Downey said. "We knew we had to defend the 3 in the second half, and we didn't do that."
USC tied it twice after that, but MSU had the answer each time. The Gamecocks contributed to their own downfall when Mike Holmes, fighting foul trouble all night, lost the ball out of bounds with a chance to tie or take the lead with 1:46 to go, and the Bulldogs got their two biggest rebounds and biggest shot of the night right after.
Mississippi State got double figures from all of its starting guards -- USC got doubles from Downey, Fredrick, Holmes, Dominique Archie and Brandis Raley-Ross. The Gamecocks stayed pretty even on the glass, falling 45-42, and didn't let themselves get manhandled by shot-blocking specialist Jarvis Varnado (he had four rejections but was otherwise quiet).
Yet USC had 16 turnovers and only forced 13, a rare deficiency for a defensive-minded team. Those lapses resulted in 20 MSU points, and the Bulldogs played them perfectly -- they ran inside to get Holmes and Muldrow in foul trouble, then switched back out when the Gamecocks lagged on outside D.
The nylon flashed and USC was back in its familiar position -- a loser on the SEC road.
"They're in there fighting and scratching and clawing, trying to keep the ball alive, trying to come up with it and then hit a big 3 and when you make those plays, you deserve to win," Horn said. "The team that makes those plays deserves to win. We didn't make them."
"They just fought harder than us," Fredrick said. "No excuses."