Wendell Lewis scored nine of his 15 total points at the foul line, including the four decisive free throws that kept Mississippi State on top in the final minutes. Putting the senior center on the line would seem a good percentage play for the Crusaders, given Lewis’46% career showing on free throws. In fact he made just 15 of them all last season.
But with Rick Ray’s first game of any sort as Bulldog head coach in the balance Lewis stepped on up and knocked them down. “I credited Wendell,” said Ray. “Hey, those free throws were huge for us.” So for that matter were Lewis’ seven rebounds and two blocked shots, on consecutive series.
Junior guard Jalen Steele set Mississippi State’s scoring pace with 17 points and hit three of the total eight treys. Forward Colin Borchert also stuck a trio of treys en route to 15 points, most in the first half as the junior college transfer almost single-handedly kept the Bulldogs going against the aggressive Crusaders. Guard Fred Thomas added another 15 points.
William Carey, which opened its season with a real game and win at Blue Mountain, gave their best shot at the upset. Or shots, with the Crusader backcourt bombing away. Jeremiah Dunnings was 3-of-9 at the arc and drew enough fouls for seven free throws, scoring 20 total points. Kelvin Nixon added 19 points and Daron Bell eleven.
The visitors even knocked down the game’s first six points, and held a 32-27 lead late in the first half before Steele and Thomas sparked State to a 41-36 halftime margin. After trailing by seven the Crusaders worked back to a 63-63 tie at 5:40.
Steele stuck a three in response, and while State couldn’t pull away they did keep enough margin the rest of the way. Lewis made the decisive freebies at 12.1 seconds after Sword made an athletic offensive rebound and kicked it back to the center.
While Ray liked how Lewis came through at the line, he wished both the starting center and big forward Rocquez Johnson had converted more normal opportunities in the lane. They were 6-of-13 shooting with several point-blank misses and five combined turnovers.
“Our post guys have to be more comfortable finishing at the rim,” Ray said. “But I liked the way they were posting and demanding the basketball.” Fortunately State guards offset those inside misses with longer makes. In particular Thomas, who put up a team-most 14 attempts. “Fred likes to shoot!” Ray said.
“I really don’t count shots. Fred is a shot maker so you have a fine line of letting him go out and score, and him making sure he has a good shot.” Though, Ray added one of the ‘bad’ Thomas shots was a 25-footer that went in anyway. Thus, “Fred is going to have a little bit of a green light.”
Ray also admitted team issues with the various zones William Carey threw at them, whether 1-3-1 or 2-3 or whatever. “Our guys weren’t prepared to be good at all three of those things offensively, so we were off-balance. We never got into a routine.”
Nor was the coach frustrated at how often his players stared at the bench wondering what to do, how to line up, whatever. This he expected with only two real veterans—Lewis and Steele—and five first-time players taking turns. Another newcomer, swingman Andre Applewhite, was sidelined with a knee problem and to have a MRI tomorrow.
“I don’t fault our guys for not knowing where to go every single time,” Ray said. “Defense is what I’m a little concerned about. We have to be the most aggressive team out there, and I don’t think we were the most aggressive team tonight.”
One statistic showed this as the Crusaders had ten steals to just two for State. They also had a 12 to 10 edge in offensive rebounds despite the height disadvantage, and William Carey might be the only shorter team the Bulldogs see all year. It was the loose balls that got to Ray. “They’re ‘100-zero’ balls because we should get them 100% of the time.”
State showed a good bit of zone defense too but only because the Crusaders were in-bounding often. Plus with a thin bench and in a first game, the Bulldogs got a little worn. Not from lack of conditioning either because they’ve been through a grueling summer and preseason regimen. But Ray also demands so much energy in practices and a pair of scrimmages late last week that some tanks were running low Sunday.
Today’s exhibition gives the staff more talking points for practice, such as the right balance of sticking to one’s assigned man while being ready to help on another. Or preventing the sort of penetration William Carey achieved, catching State flat-footed and not jumping to fill gaps. And of course getting control of the paint.
“It’s a work in progress but I feel we’ll get better at it,” Ray said. And speaking of in-progress, the coach has not picked his starting five for Friday’s official opener at Troy. “I don’t know. I don’t get too concerned about who is starting and things like that. Everybody is going to play.”
Besides, Ray said, if a player is concerned about not starting then he might not be as concerned about the team as this coach demands. “But I haven’t settled on a starting lineup. And I’ll never settle on a starting lineup.”
Tipoff at Troy is 7:00. Ray makes his home-court debut as a head coach on November 13 against Florida Atlantic.