TAMPA — Mississippi State is one of those teams most figured would need a big run in its conference tournament to make a legitimate case for a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
With an 82-68 win Friday over East No. 2 seed South Carolina in the second round of the SEC tournament, perhaps the Bulldogs have embarked on the first step of that much-needed late-season surge.
Mississippi State (21-12) initially looked as if it were headed for a deflating loss on the heels of Thursday's 19-point win over Georgia. Mississippi State made just two of their first 12 shots and fell behind by 10 with 5:44 left in the first half.
But the Gamecocks couldn't sustain the momentum, and their inability to shoot consistently in the second half did them in.
Meanwhile, Mississippi State — and primarily guard Barry Stewart — was heating up.
After taking just two shots in the first half and scoring three, Stewart poured in 18 second-half points, hitting a series of shots with a high degree of difficulty. His four 3-pointers served to break South Carolina's spirit three points at a time.
"He got his confidence up," South Carolina guard Devan Downey said. "Next thing you know, he was getting step-back (shots)."
Said Stewart: "I just felt it. Sometimes you just feel it. When the shot's falling, you just keep shooting."
The loss dealt a blow to South Carolina's shaky NCAA Tournament hopes as it fell to 21-9. But the Bulldogs are alive and can make a statement with a win against LSU today in the semifinals.
Mississippi State bounced back from a 24-point loss to the Tigers in January by pushing the league's regular-season champ to two overtimes last month. Now they'll meet again with much more at stake. And, once again, it won't be easy.
"They're a difficult team to defend in so many areas," Bulldogs coach Rick Stansbury said.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.