It was a welcome sight to Coach Rick Ray, who ten days ago lost senior starter Wendell Lewis to a kneecap injury. "We needed to have a focal point," he said. "Obviously Gavin is the only candidate right now." Fortunately the 6-9 freshman was the right matchup for this game. Against a lanky but skinny Bear frontcourt, Ware was 8-of-9 shooting from the floor and made six of his eight free throws.
"Shots were just falling for me," Ware said. True, but they were shots both he and his team specifically worked for. Scouting showed Central Arkansas to rely on full-court defensive pressure and jump-traps in halfcourt. This would allow lots of low-post opportunities for a big body like Ware, if the ball could get there.
So, "We changed most of our offense to screen and dropping in, trying to be a low post presence and get big and wide in there," Ware said.
"He really did a good job," said Ray. "I thought it would be a good game to do this because they're so spread out and pressing, it would be an ideal situation to get the ball inside. To his credit he did a great job finishing."
But even a big Dog inside needed a helping hand outside to win this one. Three-point baskets are not exactly a Mississippi State specialty, and the first nine attempts all missed. Ray wasn't worried most of the way as focusing on paint-points gave Ware and forward Rocquez Johnson that many more touches near the goal.
Still when the opposite-image Bears got some of their many (35 out of 68 total) long shots to fall, and scored quickly off turnovers, it was up to the Bulldog backcourt to deliver at least some offense. They did and in unlikely fashion. Guard Tyson Cunningham broke the outside schneid with a trey, then threw in another just ahead of the shot clock after UCA had cut a lead in half. The real outside strike came from guard Craig Sword, 1-of-18 at the arc up to today.
On an inbounds play with just two ticks to work with, last-option Sword took the long pass and heaved up a longer shot that swished. State made four of the last six trey-tries with another from local boy Fred Thomas.
"I'm just grateful shots did fall," said Cunningham. "I was wondering if one was going to go down!" Enough did drop the right way for Cunningham to finish with ten points, one of the five Dogs in double-digits. The balance wasn't as much by any design as from taking what the pressure-paced Bears allowed.
"We said we're going to play together and do what we could as a team to get this win," Cunnigham said. "We were getting touches, making extra passes, we were getting good rotation and ball movement." Guard Trivante Bloodman had 12 points, forward Colin Borcher 11, and Sword ten. Johnson, the team's scoring leader on the season, managed just nine on 3-of-7 shooting. But the forward got his points early and threw the Bears off their gameplan in the process.
Big guard Robert Crawford set the pace for UCA with 26 points, 21 of those coming on his seven treys. He had to throw it up 14 times from the arc to get there though, and the Bears were just 10-of-35 at the arc all told. Were it not for 21 Bulldog turnovers the ‘home' team would have dominated.
As it was Ware and Johnson powered for early points and a 11-4 State lead before one of UCA's long shots dropped. The Bears actually waited eight minutes before putting on real pressure and at first it did as much damage to their defense, leaving one-on-one opening the Bulldogs took advantage of for a 34-25 intermission margin. Superior State rebounding was as key to the lead as selective shooting, in fact.
The Bears really turned up the tempo for the last half and twice pulled within a possession; each time Ware had the answer and stretched a lead to seven and eight points. But the end-to-end pace was telling on the 270-pounder who had no backup available and Ware was gassed by 12:00. Central Arkansas took advantage to get within 49-46 and draw a timeout.
The called play didn't work but Sword came up with a loose ball and scored it to stem this rally. The big shift came when Cunningham was left alone in a corner and stuck State's first trey. Thomas hit from the other side, then at 8:12 it was Cunningham beating the clock with a 25-footer that swished. Two minutes later Sword came through. "Coach drew the play up for Fred, and told me to go all the way out!" Sword said of his unexpected opportunity.
Central Arkansas reverted to quick three-pointers and Crawford stuck enough to keep things tense until the final minute, with Bloodman and Borchert making the winning free throws. State was 25-of-36 on charity tosses, compared to 8-of-11 for the Bears. Lots of those fouls though were due to superior boardwork as the Bulldogs out-rebounded UCA badly, 43 to 29. And while the Bears did force lots of turnovers they gave the ball away 17 times too.
The 79 points were a season-high for State. "Our guys did a good job of doing post feeds and extra passes," said Ray. The coach was particularly proud of an early game situation where Borchert had the open look, but instead of firing dribble-drove and drew an extra defender which left Ware open for one of his many dunks.
"He was big in the low post," Cunningham said, "He was catching the ball and finishing."
Also finished was State's winless streak in away games, whether road or neutral. Technically this was one of the latter, but as the 22nd game played by Bulldogs in the capitol city's court they were making a home-away-from home. State is now 16-5 in the Coliseum officially, with one exhibition success. Not that the title mattered to Ray.
"When you're in a situation like we are getting a win is just important no matter the venue. This is even more significant because it as a win away for the Hump."
The Bulldogs are off on their Christmas break now, with the next action a home game on December 30 against Alabama A&M at 3:00.