STARKVILLE — As it claws its way to outside chance to reach the NCAA tournament, Mississippi State’s men’s basketball team is not one that can tolerate a bad day. Saturday had the looks of one in every way imaginable.
Then Eli Wright entered the game. He took over the game for about eight possessions — and didn’t take a shot for the rest of the game. MSU didn’t need him to; he had already started the fire MSU needed.
Wright scored all eight of his points in between the 10- and six-minute marks of the second half — all of them on layups or the free throw resulting from being fouled on said layup — and gave MSU what it needed to overcome a brutal start. The spark was even good enough to survive a South Carolina game tying buzzer-beater and the ensuing overtime as MSU (21-8, 9-7 Southeastern Conference) beat the Gamecocks 72-68.
“I thought the key juncture in the second half was when Eli Wright came into the game: we really got out in transition, got stops, he finished three times,” MSU coach Ben Howland said. “He did a phenomenal job for us. I thought Eli Wright was the player of the game for us.”
As soon as Wright’s run was over, freshman guard Nick Weatherspoon hit a 3-pointer to give MSU its first lead since the opening 90 seconds of the game. It was part of his 10 points, ultimately one of four MSU guards to score double digit points.
Wright saw the run that started it all as a function of timing.
“I just saw they were kind of a little tired and I knew I could run the floor,” Wright said.
As Wright was describing the sequence, he couldn’t help but shake the feeling of being watched. It was coming from two seats to his right, where sophomore guard Lamar Peters was eagerly awaiting his credit as he grinned ear to ear.
“Lamar, you know what I’m saying, giving me passes,” Wright finally relented. Peters nodded his head in approval. Having heard what he wanted, he settled back into this chair.
The moment came just a couple of hours after Peters stripped his headband off and spiked it near the bench in frustration, all in between plays.
On what was an excellent day for MSU guards, Peters was the star with 19 points, four rebounds, five assists and four steals. The frustration came from four turnovers, all concentrated in the first 10 minutes of the game, including one traveling call and another for carrying.
“I thought he was so excited about this game and there was so much adrenaline pumping, he just got tired and he needed to sit,” Howland said. “There was no taking him out because he was turning it over; I trust him completely and he’s getting better and better down the stretch.”
It didn’t help that South Carolina’s (15-14, 6-10 SEC) reputation for stingy defense lived up to the billing, turning MSU over four times in the first six minutes and keeping MSU’s starting forwards, Aric Holman and Abdul Ado, to five combined points.
“We were just getting pushed out so far, we couldn’t run our halfcourt offense,” junior guard Quinndary Weatherspoon said. “In the second half we settled down, got the ball to the spots we’re supposed to get it to and ran the offense.”
Howland added, “They really denied everything. I think we had four assists at halftime.”
Peters overcame to the tune of 11 of MSU’s final 23 points, including overtime, and half of MSU’s 10 points in the extra session.
It was Peters’ layup that gave MSU a 70-68 lead in overtime before MSU’s most pivotal defensive stop: as South Carolina’s Chris Silva came open in the lane off a pick-and-roll, Quinndary Weatherspoon ducked in from behind him and recorded his fourth steal of the game, on top of 13 points, seven rebounds and four assists.
Starkville native Tyson Carter was the final MSU guard in double digits, as he scored 13 on 3-of-5 3-point shooting.
“Everybody can score in a variety of ways, and that’s what I feel like helps our team: it can be anybody’s night any night,” Wright said.
After weathering the storm, Howland took a moment to revel in what his team had accomplished: a season sweep of a team he consistently mentions made a Final Four run a year ago and recently toppled No. 12 Auburn. It lasted only a moment.
“Everything is about Tuesday,” Howland said. “We’ll enjoy this for a couple of hours and then start working on Tennessee.”
When Tennessee visits MSU Tuesday, it will be a Volunteer team with a Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) well inside the top 20 and the No. 2 team in the conference. Just what a team clawing toward the bubble needs.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson