Mississippi State clinches SEC regular-season championship

Published 6:48 pm Sunday, March 3, 2019

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer couldn’t have been more ready to face South Carolina, and he showed his passion when his players needed it.

Schaefer loudly protested a third-quarter foul on Bulldogs guard Andra Espinoza-Hunter, coming up the court and drawing a technical with his team trailing 39-34.

“I had had enough,” Schaefer said he recalled thinking. “I’m ready to fight. Who’s in with me?”

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Mississippi State’s players showed they shared Schaefer’s fire. Teaira McCowan had 18 points and 17 rebounds to help the fifth-ranked Bulldogs rally from 10 points down and hold on through a wild finish to defeat No. 14 South Carolina 68-64 and win the Southeastern Conference title on Sunday.

Mississippi State holds the No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament and will have a double-bye. The Bulldogs begin play on Friday at 11 a.m. against the winner of Thursday’s game between LSU and Tennessee.

South Carolina (21-8, 13-3 SEC) is the No. 2 seed and will play either Arkansas or Georgia Friday at 6 p.m.

Kentucky and Texas A&M got the other two byes. No. 12 seed Ole Miss and No. 13 seed Florida will start the tournament Wednesday at 11 a.m. The SEC Tournament is in Greenville, S.C.

The Bulldogs (27-2, 15-1 SEC) were up 11 points with under seven minutes left before the Gamecocks rallied to 66-64 on Tyasha Harris’ steal and breakaway layup with 42.7 seconds to go. But it was Mississippi State that made the big plays after that.

Anriel Howard got the rebound after teammate Jordan Danberry missed two free throws on the next possession. Danberry got the board when Espinoza-Hunter missed a short jumper with 10 seconds left.

And the 6-foot-7 McCowan picked up Danberry’s missed foul shot with 2 seconds to go to secure the win for Mississippi State.

McCowan was not much of a factor in the first two quarters with just four points and two fouls. Schaefer put her back in right before the half.

“He told me to be smart and do what an All-American does,” she said.

McCowan responded with her 24th double-double this season. She finished with 44 points and 41 rebounds in Mississippi State’s regular-season sweep of the Gamecocks (21-8, 14-2).

The Bulldogs had already wrapped up the No. 1 seed for next week’s league tournament with Kentucky’s win over Georgia.

South Carolina led 39-32 at halftime, holding Mississippi State to its lowest-scoring first half this season.

But behind McCowan, the Bulldogs charged in front with a 17-4 start to the third quarter. McCowan, the likely SEC player of the year, had eight points during the stretch and eventually wore down the smaller Gamecocks — who no longer have 6-5 A’ja Wilson to match up with and slow down McCowan.

Howard had 13 points and 16 rebounds while Espinoza-Hunter had 17 points for Mississippi State, who beat the Gamecocks twice in a season for the first time since 2009.
Harris led the Gamecocks with 20 points while Mikiah Herbert Harrigan had 13 points and 11 rebounds.

“We came back at the end,” Harris said. “But it wasn’t enough.”

Mississippi State entered with a share of its second straight SEC championship. It also had a recent history of falling to the Gamecocks in some major moments, including a 67-55 loss to South Carolina in the 2017 national championship game.

And the Bulldogs struggled to keep up in the first two quarters as South Carolina used a 25-10 run during a 10-minute stretch to open a 32-22 lead.

“I knew it was going to be a dog fight,” Schaefer said. “I thought they really came out and had a lot of energy. They kind of took the fight to us a little bit. I challenged our guards at halftime because I thought their guards were the difference in the game in the first half. We talked about that a little bit and really just the toughness piece and the defensive piece.”

SEC Tournament
At Greenville, S.C.
All games televised on SEC Network unless noted
March 6

Ole Miss vs. Florida, 10 a.m.
Alabama vs. Vanderbilt, 12:30 p.m.
March 7
LSU vs. Tennessee, 11 a.m.
Ole Miss-Florida winner vs. Missouri, 1:30 p.m.
Arkansas vs. Georgia, 5 p.m.
Alabama-Vanderbilt winner vs. Auburn, 7:30 p.m.
March 8
LSU-Tennessee winner vs. Mississippi St., 11 a.m.
Ole Miss-Florida-Missouri winner, vs. Kentucky, 1:30 p.m.
Arkansas-Georgia winner vs. South Carolina, 5 p.m.
Alabama-Vanderbilt-Auburn winner vs. Texas A&M, 7:30 p.m.
March 9
Semifinals, 4 and 6:30 p.m. (ESPNU)
March 10
Championship game, 1 p.m. (ESPN2)