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By Les Johns | @KernelJohns
NASHVILLE – UK fans outnumbered fans from every other SEC school combined during session one of the SEC Tournament Wednesday, according to a media consensus — and the Cats don’t even actually play until Friday.
UK is among the top four seeds in the tournament that earned a double-bye.
The opposite end of the spectrum were the bottom four seeds in the now 14-team league. Those teams began play Wednesday night, and would have to win five games in five nights to become tourney champs.
Mississippi State 70 South Carolina 59
Four Bulldogs scored in double-figures to lead No. 13 seed Mississippi State to a, 70-59, win over No. 12 seed South Carolina in the SEC Tournament first round Wednesday night.
First-year head coach Rick Ray’s Bulldogs switched defenses often, which led to 12 steals.
“You can do everything you want against a 1-3-1 (zone), but if you don’t have two guards up top who can handle pressure and pass versus pressure, it’s going to be hard for you to solve that problem,” Ray said.
Freshman guard Fred Thomas stuffed the stat sheet, along with three Gamecock shots. He scored 21 points, had five steals and three assists.
“My coach told me to come out with some energy and play hard and I guess it carried over to my offensive game,” Thomas said. “I got to hit some shots. It was pretty good for me and my team.”
The Gamecocks settled for 31 shots behind the arc, connecting just six times for 19.4 percent.
“We never attacked their zone,” South Carolina head coach Frank Martin said.
The win marks the first time the struggling Bulldogs have won two consecutive games since Jan. 12.
“I’m really happy for our players,” Ray said. “They’ve been through a lot this season and for them to come down here to Nashville and the SEC Tournament and experience some success and just grind it out and get that win. I’m just really happy for those kids the way they keep competing on the court.”
Mississippi State moves to the second round to play Tennessee on Thursday at 3:30 p.m.
“We’re not going to talk about the quick turn around with our guys,” Ray said. “I think if you want to focus a successful team, you got to be task oriented. What we’re going to do is talk about what we need to do in order to have success against Tennessee.”
Texas A&M 71 Auburn 62
A broken finger did little to slow down Texas A&M’s Elston Turner.
“It’s my last year and I got to play with it no matter what,” Turner said. “My teammates did a great job just telling me to stay composed and fight through it.”
Turner returned to score 22 points to lead the Aggies over Auburn, 71-62, in the first round of the SEC Tournament.
Turner, who had two fingers on his non-shooting hand taped, started hot, hitting three of his first four shots.
“It’s a little splint on it,” Turner said about his finger. “I put a piece of gauze around it too. I put three pieces of tape around it and you can’t really feel it unless somebody throws a hundred-mile-an-hour basketball at you.”
Although the Tigers aggressively bodied Turner and forced him to miss nine of his final 12 shots, Turner was able to convert all eight of his fouls shots.
Foul shooting was key for the Aggies down the stretch, who hit 21-of-26 for the game.
Texas A&M advanced to play the No. 6 seed Missouri Tigers, who many presume to be in line to earn an NCAA bid, on Thursday at 10 p.m.
“I think Missouri is one of the most talented teams in our league,” Texas A&M head coach Billy Kennedy said. “It’s going to take a special performance against their team.”