LAS VEGAS (AP) — The Mississippi State bench came through against South Florida on Sunday night.
Fred Thomas helped the most.
Thomas scored 14 points and had a steal with seven seconds left to seal Mississippi State’s 71-66 win over South Florida in the third round of the Las Vegas Classic Sunday night.
Gavin Ware had 10 points and 15 rebounds for his fourth double-double of the season for the winners, whose bench outscored the Bulls, 26-9.
Also for the Bulldogs (9-2), which hit three free throws in the final 24 seconds to seal it, Colin Borchert had 11 points. Roquez Johnson and Craig Sword each had 10 for Mississippi State, which plays the winner of Santa Clara-UNLV in Monday’s championship game.
“It was a stunt and steal,” Thomas said. “I stunted (Shemiye McLendon) and I stole it. The game was pretty secure. I’ve been feeling motivated by our coaches. It made me want to play even harder. That’s why I’ve been hitting shots the last two games.”
The Bulldogs made their average of 10 steals a game on Sunday and are eighth in the nation.
“That was a huge steal,” Mississippi State coach Rick Ray said. “They had a chance to cut into our lead even further. You always want to get stops down the stretch, but when you can get a steal and turn it into offense, that’s an added bonus.”
Victor Rudd led South Florida (8-3) with 17 points and 11 rebounds. Rudd was playing with a dislocated left index finger, which he injured in Saturday’s practice. Corey Allen Jr. had 16 points, converting all eight free throws, while Chris Perry had 14 points and nine rebounds.
“Tough, tough game. We could have won this game,” South Florida coach Stan Heath said. “The big play was right there, a loose ball, a layup and we would kind of give it to someone else. Our defense wasn’t there in the first half. I told my team one of the keys was getting to the foul line. Whoever won that battle would win that game. They were plus 10 there.”
Mississippi State converted 16 of 25 from the foul line, while the Bulls were 12 of 15.
South Florida will play the loser of Santa Clara-UNLV in the final round Monday.
After leading 38-35 at halftime, the Bulldogs could not pull away and the Bulls briefly took a 45-44 lead with 15:36 left. Mississippi State later got the lead to 53-47 before the Bulls put together a small rally to tie it, 58-58, with 5:58 remaining. The Bulldogs then scored the next five and never trailed again as Johnson had six points down the stretch.
“They have good ball pressure,” said Rudd, who added that his finger popped twice during the game and was icing it in a cup after the game. “They move the ball around. All their perimeter players anticipated well.”
Mississippi State shot 54 percent from the field in the first half to take a 38-35 halftime lead. SouthFlorida jumped to a 12-5 lead before the Bulldogs led 31-22 with four minutes left. There were four lead changes in the first half.
This is the Bulls’ third trip to Las Vegas since 2006. They are 3-2 in Las Vegas since then, all in invitational tournaments.
Mississippi State last played in Las Vegas in the 2001 Las Vegas Classic, going 3-1.
Sunday’s meeting was the first between the teams since 1974. Mississippi State is now 3-0 all-time against South Florida.
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