LAS VEGAS, Nevada - Mississippi State held its own against a massive, physical front line from South Florida.
Leading the rebounding statistic and sparked by Gavin Ware's fourth double-double of the season, the Bulldogs beat the Bulls 71-66 in an opening-round game of the Continental Tire Las Vegas Classic Sunday night at the New Orleans Arena.
The Bulldogs won their fourth straight to improve to 9-2 overall. MSU will face either UNLV or Santa Clara at 9:30 p.m. CT Monday for the tournament championship. That contest will be televised nationally by CBS Sports Network.
"I told the guys you can't win the big championship until you start winning the little championships," MSU head coach Rick Ray said. "We are going to treat this game (Monday) like it is very important, because it is a chance to win a championship. We played really well tonight but it is a quick turnaround and we have to come out and do it again against another quality team."
Ray was concerned in the pregame because he felt like South Florida would present the biggest front line MSU has faced this year.
The Bulldogs responded to that challenge by having a plus-one rebounding advantage and by earning 25 free throw attempts, compared to the Bulls' 15.
The inside dominance started with Ware who had 10 points and matched a career high with 15 rebounds. Roquez Johnson also gave his fellow big man some relief and hit a pair of baskets during an 8-2 run in the second half.
"We don't win the game without Gavin Ware stepping up and playing the way he did," Ray said. "He got some really big rebounds, especially his last one (with a four-point lead inside the final minute). He really took this game as a big challenge and delivered big time."
MSU dropped behind 12-5 four minutes into the contest. The Bulldogs pulled even at 14 and things were nip-and-tuck until Fred Thomas sparked a mini-rally and helped the Maroon and White out to a 31-22 advantage - the game's largest for either time.
South Florida hit a 3-point basket as the half expired, cutting the deficit to 38-35.
In the second half, USF battled back for its only lead at 45-44. That lead was quickly erased when Colin Borchert was fouled on a 3-point shot attempt and hit all three free throws. A layup by Johnson ran the lead to 58-52 before USF battled back for one final tie at 58.
From there, the Bulldogs regrouped and a critical steal by Trivante Bloodman helped swing the game for good.
"The guys from the beginning came out and really competed," Ray said. "We fell down 12-5 quickly and the guys stuck with it. We had a lot of hustle plays and knocked some balls loose out of the 1-3-1."
For the contest, the Bulldogs hit 25 of 55 shots from the field (45.5 percent), 5 of 14 shots from 3-point range (35.7 percent) and 16 of 25 shots from the foul line (64.0 percent). The Bulls hit 24 of 52 shots from the field (46.2 percent), 6 of 15 shots from 3-point range (40.0 percent) and 12 of 15 shots from the foul line (80.0 percent).
MSU held a 32-31 rebounding advantage. The Bulldogs had 12 assists and 13 turnovers, while the Bulls had 11 assists and 18 turnovers.
Thomas paced MSU with 14 points, while Borchert added 11 points. Johnson, Sword and Ware each had 10 points. IJ Ready had seven assists.
Victor Rudd led South Florida with 17 points and 11 rebounds. Corey Allen, Jr. added 16 points and Chris Perry added 14 points for the Bulls.