When his team needed it the most, Michael Carrera was there to save the day.
Following a poor performance on the road in Knoxville, earning their second loss of the season, South Carolina had a productive practice before Tuesday night's game. During the week, Frank Martin's message to his leaders - play better. Carrera took the simple advice and ran with it.
The senior scored a career-high 34 points to go along with 15 rebounds in USC's 84-74 win over Mississippi State at Colonial Life Arena. In doing so, Carrera became the first Gamecock to reach at least 30 points and 15 rebounds in a game since the team joined the SEC in 1992. His performance officially gave South Carolina its best 20-game start since 2003 while also giving them their most wins in a season since 2008.
The now 18-2 Gamecocks struggled to begin the game, just like they have over the last couple weeks. Luckily, the Bulldogs struggled as mightily as USC did from the game's opening tip. The two teams combined to make just three of their first 18 attempts from the floor. MSU went four minutes without scoring early on and USC held a 7-5 lead at the first media timeout.
The Gamecocks were able to take a more commanding lead as they game creaked to halftime. Six turnovers from the Bulldogs helped USC take a 20-9 lead at the 8:11 mark. After scoring two points in a 5+ minute span, Mississippi State rattled off seven straight points to get back into the game.
A momentous dunk from Quinndary Weatherspoon and a Bulldog trey curtailed the South Carolina momentum. The game was growing tense but a Gamecock vet and a Gamecock freshman were there with answers. Junior Duane Notice knocked down a three-pointer and freshman P.J. Dozier contributed an old fashion three-point play. Carrera knocked down a buzzer-beating jumper at the end of the half to give USC a comfortable 43-34 lead heading into the break.
South Carolina carried that momentum into the locker room and right back out as the second half got under way. A 5-1 Gamecock run featuring a Carrera trey opened the final period and forced Mississippi State head coach Ben Howland to call a timeout right away.
The game was muddied by fouls out of the timeout with each team residing in the bonus with 12 minutes left in the game. Dozier, Notice and freshman Chris Silva all picked up their fourth fouls before the 10-minute mark of the half.
As time ticked away, the pace picked up and the Bulldogs made two significant gains on the Gamecock lead. A 12-2 MSU run highlighted by a group of 3-pointers reduced South Carolina's lead to just two. Carrera threw on his cape to save USC from blowing the lead. He blocked a Bulldog shot then ran the floor to knockdown a trey in transition. On South Carolina's next offensive possession, Carrera bullied himself into a three-point play. The Gamecock lead was at eight just like that.
Another flurry of threes from Mississippi State led to their second threat. With 4:40 left to play, USC's lead was down to four. A MSU dunk got their deficit down to just two possessions with plenty of time to play. While the offense had responded in previous adverse moments Tuesday night, it was the defense's turn in the final moments. After the dunk, the Bulldogs went 2-of-10 from the field the rest of the game. Carrera and Notice took advantage on the offensive end by knocking down their free throws when it counted. South Carolina was able to recover from a disappointing loss with a solid win over a team that had been playing its best basketball of the year.
The Gamecocks next opportunity is one they won't need any extra motivation for. The Alabama Crimson Tide travel to Colonial Life Arena on Saturday afternoon. It's been exactly two weeks since the Tide gave USC their first loss and they did it in borderline embarrassing fashion. Saturday will have a revenge feel to it.