COLUMBIA, S.C. - Mississippi State clinched a share of the Southeastern Conference Western Division championship by taking down South Carolina 76-63 in a men's basketball game played Saturday night in USC's Colonial Life Arena.
For the Bulldogs, it is their fifth Western Division title during the 12-year coaching career of Rick Stansbury. MSU has won out-right or shared the division championship in three of the past four season. The Bulldogs can grab this title out-right by winning at Auburn Wednesday or by defeating Tennessee at home next Saturday.
By virtue of Saturday's win, the Bulldogs also clinched the Western Division top seed for the league tournament. This year's SEC Tournament begins March 11 in Nashville, Tenn. MSU will draw a first-round bye and will start its tournament title defense at 6:30 p.m. CT on March 12.
M-State improved to 21-8 overall and 9-5 in league play, while South Carolina fell to 14-14 and 5-9. The Gamecocks have now lost five straight this season. The Bulldogs have also won four straight in this series.
"These players deserve a lot of credit to be able to come in here and win this basketball game," Stansbury said. "Our guys played with great composure all night long. We did a great job of focusing on the moment and worrying about the things we were in charge of."
The Bulldogs played well from start to finish Saturday night. South Carolina managed only two leads - each by a point and each early in the first half. MSU erased that last lead with a 20-6 run to open up a 27-14 advantage with 5:00 left in the half.
MSU struck the early advantage by scoring from long range. In the opening half, MSU hit seven 3-point baskets, including four by Barry Stewart. On the inside, Jarvis Varnado was already on his way to this season's 17th double-double. Varnado finished with a team-high 19 points and 12 rebounds.
For Varnado, it was his highest offensive output in a league game this season.
"Tonight, we really made shots," Stansbury said. "When you make shots, it makes everything easier in a game. However, the two big reasons we won the game were defense, especially the job we did on Devan Downey, and rebounding, we only allowed them five offensive rebounds."
In the second half, the Gamecocks pieced together their final run. Downey hit a jumper to cap a half-opening 9-4 run. That basket brought USC within 39-37 with 16:45 remaining.
The Bulldogs quickly answered with a 9-0 run, sparked by a pair of strong offensive plays from Kodi Augustus. MSU kept the defensive pressure up, eventually expanding the lead to 16 points. Stewart's final 3 of the night gave the Maroon and White a 60-44 lead with 9:32 remaining.
For the contest, the Bulldogs hit 26 of 52 shots from the field (50.0 percent), 10 of 21 shots from 3-point range (47.6 percent) and 14 of 20 shots from the foul line (70.0 percent). The Gamecocks hit 26 of 60 shots from the field (43.3 percent), 7 of 28 shots from 3-point range (25.0 percent) and 4 of 5 shots from the foul line (80.0 percent).
MSU held a 36-26 rebounding advantage. The Bulldogs had 12 assists and 10 turnovers, while the Gamecocks had 11 assists and nine turnovers.
Varnado was joined by four other Bulldogs in double figures. Stewart finished with 18 points, while Ravern Johnson scored 15 points, Augustus scored 13 points and Dee Bost scored 11 points.
The Bulldogs travel to Auburn for a 7 p.m. start Wednesday. That contest will be the last regular season game played in AU's Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum and will also be shown regionally by The SEC Network.