Sword, Mississippi State knock off Tennessee 71-66
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Mississippi State's Craig Sword says he's feeling fine as long as his team keeps playing the way it did Tuesday.
Sword scored 26 points to continue his successful comeback from preseason back surgery as Mississippi State relied on sizzling 3-point shooting to beat Tennessee 71-66.
''Anytime we get a win, I'm (feeling) 100 percent,'' Sword quipped.
After undergoing back surgery in October, Sword missed the Bulldogs' first five games and scored in double figures just once in his first 13 appearances. The junior guard now has averaged 18 points per game over his last five contests.
''It's a day-to-day process with him,'' Mississippi State coach Rick Ray said. ''Sometimes he doesn't practice. Sometimes we don't know if he's going to be able to go in games until he gets out there and warms up. But (Sword) is really one of the toughest players I've ever coached. He goes out there and gives effort every single time, whether it's in practice or in games.''
Mississippi State (11-11, 4-5 SEC) shot 55.9 percent (19 of 34) overall and 72.7 percent (8 of 11) from 3-point range to end a string of 16 consecutive February losses. The Bulldogs hadn't won a February game since beating South Carolina 69-67 in overtime on Feb. 29, 2012.
Sword and Fred Thomas made sure the Bulldogs ended their recent February misery. Sword shot 7 of 8 overall and 4 of 5 from beyond the arc. Thomas scored 20 points while shooting 5 of 7 overall and 4 of 5 on 3-pointers.
''We let them get hot early,'' said Tennessee guard Josh Richardson, who scored a career-high 30 points. ''Mississippi State's a team where if you let them do that, it's going to be rough.''
The Bulldogs led 63-61 in the final minute when Tennessee's Derek Reese drove into the lane and missed a dunk attempt. Thomas got the rebound, raced to the other end of the floor and converted a three-point play with 52 seconds left. Mississippi State's lead wouldn't drop below three points again.
Mississippi State found a way to win despite attempting 26 fewer shots than Tennessee (13-8, 5-4), which had 20 offensive rebounds and outscored the Bulldogs 17-6 in second-chance points. The Volunteers shot 41.7 percent (25 of 60) overall and 25 percent (5 of 20) on 3-pointers.
But the Bulldogs went 25 of 35 on free throws, while Tennessee was 11 of 17.
''Our team's margin of error is so, so small that if we don't have the right mentality and we're not on razor's edge, there's no one in our league we can beat,'' Tennessee coach Donnie Tyndall said. ''That's just where it is. Our guys didn't have that edge on the defensive end in my opinion tonight. Give Mississippi State credit. They did (have that edge).''
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs' performance against Tennessee continued their recent resurgence from 3-point range. Although Mississippi State had entered Tuesday's game in last place in the SEC in 3-point field-goal percentage (.305), the Bulldogs were shooting much better from beyond the arc (.368) in league competition.
Tennessee: Freshman forward Tariq Owens made his second career start, and his first since Dec. 6. Owens had four points, two rebounds and four fouls in 10 minutes.
Although Richardson scored a career-high 30 points, he also had seven turnovers. ... Since losing its first three SEC games, Mississippi State has won four of its last six. ... Mississippi State had made just 11 baskets in a 61-47 loss to Tennessee on Jan. 7. In Tuesday's' rematch, the Bulldogs had 12 baskets by halftime.
''Our guys are steadily staying the course,'' Ray said. '' I give a lot of credit to our team because a lot of people would have pitched it in and (given) up after our start to the SEC season, but to those guys' credit and their character, they still continue to do the things we ask them to do in order to become a better team.''
Mississippi State plays at Arkansas on Saturday.
Tennessee plays at Georgia on Saturday.