NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Fred Thomas scored a career-high 21 points Wednesday night as No. 13 seed Mississippi State defeated No. 12 seed South Carolina 70-59 in the first round of the Southeastern Conference tournament.
Mississippi State (10-21) advanced to a second-round game Thursday against No. 5 seed Tennessee (19-11). The Bulldogs have won three of their last four games, though they had lost 13 straight before that.
South Carolina's Brenton Williams, who had scored a career-high 38 points in a 79-72 victory over Mississippi State on March 6, shot 2 of 13 and had just six points Wednesday.
After the game went back and forth for the first nine minutes, Mississippi State took control by going on a 13-0 run to break a 13-13 tie. Thomas, one of three freshmen in the Bulldogs' starting lineup, scored eight points during that spurt by hitting a pair of 3-pointers and two free throws.
Damien Leonard ended a six-minute scoring drought for South Carolina by hitting a jumper and followed that with a 3-pointer that cut Mississippi State's lead to 26-18, but the Bulldogs quickly recovered. Mississippi State led 32-21 at halftime and stayed in front by at least four points the rest of the night.
Mississippi State got unexpected production from 3-point range. The Bulldogs were last in the SEC in 3-pointers per game (4.7) and 3-point percentage (.281) during the regular season, but they went 7 of 15 from beyond the arc Wednesday while South Carolina was 6 of 31.
Thomas led the way by going 4 of 8 from 3-point range.
South Carolina cut Mississippi State's lead to 60-56 on a Williams 3-pointer with 4:09 remaining, but Mississippi State answered with six straight points. Thomas sank a 3-pointer and made two free throws during that game-clinching spurt.
Wednesday's victory represented a step forward for a Mississippi State program that has battled all kinds of injuries in coach Rick Ray's debut season.
Junior guard Jalen Steele and freshman guards Andre Applewhite and Jacoby Davis tore anterior cruciate ligaments. Senior forward Wendell Lewis fractured a right patella tendon. Steele ranked second on the team with 10.1 points per game. Lewis averaged 8.1 points in just eight games before getting hurt.