ATLANTA (AP) - Mississippi State coach Rick Ray says his players continued to work hard even when it may have been tempting to give up on a lost season.
The reward came in the SEC tournament.
Craig Sword scored 20 points and Mississippi State ended a 13-game losing streak by beating Vanderbilt 82-68 on Wednesday night in the first round of the Southeastern Conference tournament.
Roquez Johnson had 18 points and Fred Thomas had 16 for Mississippi State (14-18).
“We were talking before the game that we knew we had a long losing streak but we were going to start fresh,” Johnson said.
The 14th-seeded Bulldogs took their first win since beating Auburn on Jan. 22.
“A lot of people could have just pitched up the tent and headed into the offseason content with being in last place and not even trying to advance in the SEC tournament,” Ray said. “But our guys stayed the course and really stuck with it.”
Mississippi State plays No. 6 seed Mississippi (18-13) Thursday. It will be only the second time the Bulldogs have played Ole Miss in the SEC tournament, following a 73-64 win over the Rebels in the 2003 tournament.
Damian Jones had 16 points and Rod Odom and Dai-Jon Parker had 15 for Vanderbilt (15-16), the No. 11 seed, which closed its season with five straight losses.
“I just thought it was a case of Mississippi State playing far superior basketball to what we were playing,” said Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings.
Mississippi State shot 59.3 percent (32 of 54) from the field and outrebounded the Commodores 33-25.
Mississippi State’s 13-game losing streak was the longest to close a regular season in school history. The three losses this month, to Missouri, Georgia and South Carolina, were all by double-digit margins.
The Bulldogs opened strong. Vanderbilt’s last lead was 8-6.
“Because of the start, we got knocked back on our heels and never really recovered,” Stallings said.
Mississippi State led 36-31 at halftime and then opened the second half with 10 straight points, stretching the lead to 15 points. Johnson had three baskets in the run.
Vanderbilt first point of the half came on a free throw by Kyle Fuller, who had 11 points. The Commodores went more than 5 minutes into the half without a field goal before Odom’s 3-pointer ended the drought.
Odom’s shot was the first in a string of four 3-pointers that helped Vanderbilt close the deficit to six points at 50-44. The Commodores again pulled to within six at 52-46 on two free throws by Odom midway through the half.
The Bulldogs answered with a basket and free throw by Sword and stretched the lead back to 17 points at 72-55 and kept the lead in double figures the remainder of the game.
Vanderbilt ended a streak of four straight years with at least one win in the SEC tournament.
“We didn’t come out with enough energy,” Jones said. “We didn’t get the stops we needed.”
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