Shooting a season-best 59.3 percent from the field, Mississippi State blitzed past Vanderbilt 82-68 in an opening-round game of the Southeastern Conference Men’s Basketball Tournament.
No. 14 seed MSU (14-18) will now face No. 6 seed Ole Miss (18-13) at 8:30 p.m. CT Thursday in a second-round contest. The game will be televised by SEC TV and shown regionally either by local affiliates or on Fox Sports Net.
The in-state rivals have met one time in the conference tournament with MSU winning 73-64 in 2003. MSU won a first-round tournament game for a second straight season and beat Vanderbilt in this event for a program-best sixth time.
“Just a really good win for our guys and our program,” MSU head coach Rick Ray said. “A lot of people could have just pitched up the tent and headed into the offseason content with being in last place and not even trying to advance on in the SEC Tournament.
“But our guys really stayed the course and stuck with it.”
To secure Wednesday’s win, the Bulldogs not only had their best night from the field, but they also notched a season-high 21 assists. After an old-fashioned 3-point play by Craig Sword gave the Bulldogs a 9-8 lead, they did not trail over the final 36 minutes, 34 seconds of the contest.
MSU began its blistering offensive assault early as it made its first four shots from the field. Less than five minutes into the contest, each MSU starter was in the scoring column. The first of four Fred Thomas 3-point baskets placed the Bulldogs on top 14-8.
Vanderbilt (15-16) was back within two before the rare Craig Sword 3-point basket and two free throws by Trivante Bloodman ran the advantage to 23-18 MSU. Another Thomas trey and a free throw by Gavin Ware pushed the lead to nine points.
The Bulldogs shot in excess of 70 percent for most of the half and still led by nine points at 34-25 and 36-27. MSU did not score over the final 3:55 of the half but still led 36-31 at the intermission.
The quiet offensive play for MSU did not last as the Maroon and White started the second half just as hot. MSU scored the first 10 points of the game’s final half. By the time, Bloodman hit a jumper in the lane, MSU had built a 46-31 lead with 16:07 left in regulation.
Rejuvenated and ready to hit more shots, the Bulldogs led by 15 at 50-35 after a Roquez Johnson jumper with 14:16 left.
“We know we had a bad losing streak, but we are talked about starting fresh in the SEC Tournament,” Johnson said. “We wanted to come out and play our hardest.”
Vanderbilt mounted a 9-0 run to pull within six points. The Bulldogs’ answer was another jumper by Johnson and five straight points by Sword. A monster dunk by Gavin Ware ran the lead back out to 59-46 with 6:38 left.
Six straight points, including another 3-point play by Sword, pushed the lead to 16 points with 3:23 left.
After shooting 60.9 percent from the field in the first half, MSU followed that up with a 58.1 percent performance in the second half.
“We executed tonight,” Sword said. “We ran all our plays right and we got good shots and finished them. Throughout the year we had a lot of shots that we didn’t finish, but tonight we did.”
For the contest, the Bulldogs hit 32 of 54 shots from the field (59.3 percent), 6 of 13 shots from 3-point range (46.2 percent) and 12 of 16 shots from the foul line (75.0 percent). The Commodores hit 25 of 56 shots from the field (44.6 percent), 8 of 25 shots from 3-point range (32.0 percent) and 10 of 16 shots from the foul line (62.5 percent).
MSU held a 33-25 rebounding advantage. The Bulldogs had 21 assists and 13 turnovers, while the Commodores had 14 assists and 13 turnovers.
Sword led four Bulldogs in double figures with 20 points, six assists and three steals. Johnson added 18 points, while Thomas added 16 points and Ware added 11 points. I.J. Ready had a team-best six rebounds.
“You can now really go into next season on a positive note,” Ray said. “But I think more so than anything our guys feel good about themselves. Once you get a win, you gain some momentum. We will come out (Thursday night) with some momentum. We have not had that in a while.”
Vanderbilt also placed four players in double figures. Damian Jones had 16 points, while Rod Odom and Dai-Jon Parker each had 15 points and Kyle Fuller had 11 points.