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March 2, 2002

STARKVILLE, Miss. — With the second seed in the SEC’s Western Division for the taking, the Mississippi State Bulldogs (22-7, 9-6) conclude their 2001-02 regular season and draw the curtains on the Carolina Coliseum era by taking on the South Carolina Gamecocks (16-12, 6-9) Saturday afternoon in Columbia. Tip-off for the final regular-season game to be played at USC’s Frank McGuire Arena is slated for 2 p.m. ET, with the inter-divisional contest set to be regionally televised by Jefferson-Pilot Sports.

Owners of a No. 14 national ranking according to CollegeRPI.com and a No. 29 strength of schedule rating, coach Rick Stansbury’s 22-7 Bulldogs can secure the SEC West’s No. 2 seed heading into next week’s SEC Tournament with a road victory over South Carolina. MSU could also get the second seed by virtue of a Mississippi home loss to Alabama on Sunday afternoon in Oxford. Should State and Ole Miss tie for second place in the SEC West, the tiebreaker would go to the Rebels. Having won four consecutive league games for the first time since 1998-99 after Wednesday’s entertaining 89-83 home victory over Arkansas, the Bulldogs are now 9-6 in conference play and have locked down their first winning SEC season since going 10-6 in league action during the team’s Final Four campaign of 1995-96. The last time a Mississippi State squad claimed five straight SEC wins came during the first five conference games of the 1993-94 season under the guidance of Richard Williams.

Looking to further solidify their first NCAA Tournament bid since 1995-96, the Bulldogs enter the final weekend of regular-season action ranked among the national leaders in team field-goal percentage (49.1%, 4th in the NCAA) and rebounding margin (+7.5, 15th). During the team’s current four-game winning streak, MSU has outrebounded three of its last four opponents by 22 rebounds or more, including a commanding 46-21 rebounding advantage over Arkansas.

Having started the same lineup of Michal Ignerski, Michael Gholar, Mario Austin, Derrick Zimmerman and Marckell Patterson during each of the last 16 games, including all 15 SEC contests, MSU is powered by the inside game of Austin, who ranks among the league’s Top 10 leaders in scoring, rebounding and field-goal percentage as a sophomore after a dominating 30-point, 13-rebound performance earlier in the week versus Arkansas. Patterson, a senior swingman with 1,123 career points for State, needs 22 more points to move up two more notches and into 17th place on the school’s all-time scoring chart.

Guided by first-year head coach and former Wake Forest head man Dave Odom, the Gamecocks are 16-12 overall and 6-9 in the SEC after dropping back to-back road decisions to Auburn and Georgia within the past week. South Carolina, which will move into its new USC Arena this November, is paced by the senior backcourt tandem of Jamel Bradley and Aaron Lucas, who average 13.8 and 10.2 points per game, respectively, and have combined for 134 treys.

Mississippi State owns a slight 6-5 all-time series edge over South Carolina since the Gamecocks joined the SEC in 1991-92. The Bulldogs will be looking for their first win in Columbia since the 1993-94 campaign.

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