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South Carolina 81 Mississippi State 68: Johnson Does What Seniors Do

Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

After Tuesday's night loss at Alabama, Frank Martin spoke highly of Alabama senior guard Levi Randolph. In the post-game presser, Martin commented that Randolph "did what seniors do," going on to say that he "defended his home court."

I doubt it was a message for South Carolina senior Tyrone Johnson but Ty accomplished the same feat Saturday night that Randolph had earlier in the week.

South Carolina entered Saturday night's match-up one game below .500 and one game below Mississippi State in the SEC standings. The Bulldogs actually held, and continue to hold, a winning record on South Carolina's home floor all-time.

With all that being said, Johnson did what his coach said he expects of seniors, he led his team and protected his home floor. The Gamecocks roughed up the Bulldogs 81-68 Saturday afternoon as Johnson exploded for a career-high 28 points in the win. He also added four rebounds and three assists but the most impressive aspect of the game was the fact that Johnson's dribbles controlled the tempo of the game. He was in-check and as he said after the game, he and his team "played like grown men."

After missing four games then returning Tuesday night against Alabama, freshman point guard Marcus Stroman was ruled out of tonight's contest after a recurrence of his throat infection. The Gamecocks opened the game with back-to-back turnovers that the Bulldogs turned into a 4-0 lead. South Carolina then woke up and went on a 9-0 run to take an early lead of their own.

The two teams traded buckets as well as plenty of bricks. At one point South Carolina missed six of seven shots from behind the arc. Despite that, the Gamecocks found themselves up 10 before MSU decreased their deficit to three. Sophomores Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice canned back-to-back 3-pointers that started a fiery stretch for South Carolina. Including those long-range baskets, the Gamecocks went on to make six of their next seven 3-pointers, increasing their lead to double-digits. Sophomore guard Duane Notice hit three treys himself in the first half.

Mississippi State had two players, Roquez Johnson and Demetrius Houston, suffer minor injuries in the first half but still only found themselves down 39-31 at halftime thanks to 59 percent shooting from the field. The Gamecocks shot 50 percent from the field themselves, causing me to wonder if I was dreaming.

Duane Notice's touch was still spirited coming out of the locker room. He hit another 3-pointer right out of the gates to increase South Carolina's lead to double-digits. The Bulldogs mustered a few baskets but at the 17-minute mark, the Gamecocks increased their lead to double-digits once again and never looked back.

MSU lost despite an incredible performance from junior guard Craig Sword who went for 26 points and eight rebounds tonight. After the game Martin said of Sword, "God is Craig Sword good. He might be the hardest guard in the league." Sword's fantastic individual performance wasn't enough for an impressive all-around effort from South Carolina.

As I mentioned in the preview, South Carolina had done an admirable job of late to move the ball, a characteristic their offense hadn't possessed all season. In the previous three games, 62 percent of the Gamecocks baskets were assisted field goals. Tonight, all five starters had at least three assists, led by Notice's five. Maybe it was the passing, or maybe it was luck, but USC's shooting and scoring was as good as it had been all season.

The 81 points tonight created a number of new notes. It was the first time this season the Gamecocks had scored 70+ in SEC play, obviously making it the highest total in league games this season. It also tied the third highest output of the season for South Carolina as well.

Despite attempting at least 20 3-pointers for the sixth consecutive game, USC finished shooting 46.3 percent from the field. It was the first time in the last eight games that the Gamecocks had shot at least 40 percent from the floor. Laimonas Chatkevicius brought that percentage up as he had another stellar performance. Chat backed up his 18-9 from Tuesday night with an 18-9 Saturday night. Eighteen points in Chatkevicius' career-high and he's tied it in back-to-back games. He also has a combined 28 rebounds in his last three outings.

"We're down to not a full team, we're down some guys," Chatkevicius said after the game when asked what inspired his latest performances. "Every time I get the ball I try to be aggressive."

Maybe if he played like that all the time and not just when the Gamecocks are down a few bodies, the season would be at a different point.

I'm sorry, that saltiness isn't needed. Impressive accomplishments can still be had.

The Gamecocks still have a chance of bypassing the first day of the SEC Tournament if they can win at least one of their final two games.

South Carolina ends the year with two pretty formidable tests: vs. No. 18 Arkansas and at Tennessee. If they can pull at least one win out of those two, a couple nice notes can be created for the athletic department.

The win tonight gave South Carolina its fifth SEC win of the season, tying the high that three previous teams had accomplished in that category over the last five seasons. At least one win in the final week of the regular season would give USC six SEC wins, a feat they haven't accomplished since 2010.

Perhaps more important for the state of the program, one more win will mean that Frank Martin has increased his win total each season with the Gamecocks.

I've been plenty critical of Martin but that would be major evidence of progress if you haven't already noticed it on the court.

That late-season journey gets started Thursday, March 5 at 7 p.m. ET when No. 18 Arkansas arrives in Columbia.