Mississippi State needed a win against South Carolina to end the regular season as sole owner of the SEC conference title. South Carolina needed a win against Mississippi State to claim partial ownership of the regular season conference championship.
With the title on the line, these two top-15 teams brought intensity, grit and persistence to the court in Columbia, South Carolina, and ultimately, the higher-ranked team walked away with the win.
No. 5 Mississippi State found the fourth quarter magic they needed to escape No. 14 South Carolina 68-64 and end the season 27-2 and 15-1 in SEC play. That was good enough to edge South Carolina (13-3) by two games in the conference title race.
MSU and South Carolina have combined to win the last five SEC titles, and they've battled for the honor in four of their last seven meetings. The intensity on Sunday afternoon lived up to the hype of the history of this rivalry.
Mississippi State led nearly the entire first quarter until South Carolina found a rhythm behind an 8-0 run to take a 19-14 lead at the end of the frame. The Gamecocks expanded their lead by as much as 10 in the second quarter and entered halftime up by seven on the No. 5 team in the nation.
But South Carolina went cold in the third quarter, scoring just eight points in the frame. Mississippi State surged into the lead midway through the third — the team's first advantage in over 10 minutes — after a layup from Andra Espinoza-Hunter made it 42-41.
The Bulldogs extended the lead to as much as six before the quarter's end, but two jumpers from South Carolina's Tyasha Harris cut the lead to just four before the third quarter final whistle, setting up an entertaining final 15 minutes of regulation.
That's when Mississippi State took over.
Within the first five minutes of the fourth quarter, Mississippi State raced out on an 11-4 run to pull ahead by 11, the largest lead of the game for either team. The Bulldogs kept the pressure on South Carolina, patiently creating plays and producing opportunities on nearly every offensive run.
But the Gamecocks wouldn't quit. Down by nine points at the final media timeout, South Carolina once again went on a run to close the gap to two at the 1:29 mark.
Free throws sealed the deal for Mississippi State, as the Bulldogs went a perfect 6-for-6 from the line in the final 10 minutes.
McCowan led the way for the Bulldogs with 18 points, while Espinoza-Hunter added 17. Anriel Howard and McCowan both recorded double-doubles on the night with 16 and 17 rebounds, respectively.
Four Bulldogs hit double-digits on the night compared to just two Gamecocks, and this balanced scoring effort proved to be enough to hold off the No. 14 SEC foe.
South Carolina entered the game with four players averaging double-digit points. Harris paced the Gamecocks with 20, just less than a third of her team's total points. Mikiah Herbert Harrigan added 13 while Bianca Cuevas-Moore nearly hit the double-digit mark with nine points.
Mississippi State and South Carolina, two of the most offensive programs in the nation, could face each other again in the SEC tournament as the top two seeds. The 2019 SEC tournament kicks off March 6, but the Bulldogs and Gamecocks, on double byes, won't play until the March 8 quarterfinals.