It almost went very bad for the Bulldogs, who trailed more often than not and were still tied with 2:37 remaining after Nobles got loose for a layup. A turnover gave his team the ball back but Nobles missed and G Craig Sword was able to slash the lane for a layin. Another Nobles miss ended up in Bulldog hands with G Fred Thomas getting fouled and making one free throw; with Nobles doing the same at 0:40 for a two-point difference.
Bloodman did delay his outside jumper until the shot clock was nearly done so the Tigers could corral the carom at around five seconds. JSU Coach Wayne Brent was quite literally in front of the Bulldog bench when he got officials' attention for the timeout at 2.9 ticks.
"I think he was out of the coach's box, he was in our coach's box!" Ray said. No technical was assessed but neither was time added after review. The inbounds came to Nobles and he struggled against double-traps to finally fire from left of the circle, with Sword fortunately not called for ticking the shooter's arm.
Surviving meant Mississippi State (4-1) avoided a major upset and is now 24-3 against SWAC squads. The Tigers left 2-4 and frustrated at coming so close to knocking off the SEC hosts. They led 28-23 at halftime and battled the Bulldogs evenly on the boards all day.
"Coach told us we had to go out and bang them," F Colin Borchert said. "We were a SEC team and this was Jackson State coming in. We came out the second half and fought."
Second-year coach Ray figured the Tigers would be up for this one, maybe even better-prepared after playing a tougher early-season schedule of sorts. "So they've had to compete every game, and their competitive fire is way high right now. And ours is not."
The Bulldogs certainly weren't firing on all cylinders from the start. The post-game build around C Gavin Ware miss-fired in fact. Ware came in averaging a double-double but finished with just four points and seven rebounds. When the sophomore center had his first two attempts rim-off it seemed to take Ware off his game everywhere, even allowing for Tiger defensive focus.
Because as Ray noted, "Roc(quez Johnson) got the ball inside when he wanted it." The forward came off the bench to effectively save State's offensive day with 11 points. He only made two shots and tried three but drew fouls and made seven of eight free shots.
"I felt I brought a lot of energy to the game," Johnson said. "They started feeding off my teammates and the energy got us going."
Sword (12 points) and Thomas (11) also got the offense going, not on jumpshots but by attacking the lane for layups and runners. Or at least after halftime, because they and others settled too soon for attempts at or around the arc before. The Dogs were 4-of-12 on trey-tries in the first half. "Coach wore us out in the locker room," Sword said.
"He told us if we shot a three within ten seconds ne was taking us out," agreed Borchert. It worked because the only long shot in the whole last half…was Applewhite's at the very end. Instead State went at the goal and it showed in 62% shooting as well as 13 free-throw chances.
It was an awkward first half by both teams in fact, with 18 combined turnovers and erratic shooting. The Tigers weren't at all intimidated as they knocked out an 8-1 lead. If not for four-straight JSU turnovers things could have gotten really ugly early, but their gaffes did give the Dogs some breathing room.
So did 1-of-8 outside shooting by the Tigers, something State wanted to force. "Coach said cheat-in a little because their men weren't that much a threat on the outside," said Borchert. Few Dogs were a threat at all as 28% first-half shooting showed.
But with Ware and Sword taking it to the rim the second half began better and by 15:00 the Bulldogs were in front. Barely and not for-good with the longest advantage just five points. Still better defense, with guard Javares Brent essentially shut down and Nobles constantly chased around, finally showed. Shots blocked by Ware and Sword allowed the Dogs to re-tie and then regain a lead that would last.
The Tigers were entirely prepared for this trip, Borchert said. "They were calling out the sets when we were calling out the sets. That frustrated us in the first half."
Ware was more bothered by struggles to guard man-on-man, to the point he told his team to just hold positions to prevent Nobles' drives and only chase Brent. The fact is we couldn't guard them, so we packed it in and made them take jump shots." Center Brandon West had 10 points and 12 rebounds for Jackson State.
State had 19 turnovers to 15 for the visitors and only one more rebound. The attacking nature of both offenses was shown in lack of assists for each side. Half of State's four treys came in the first half by G Jacoby Davis off the bench.
"What disappoints me the most is I talked about three things before the game," Ray said. "Enthusiasm, excitement, and energy. We had none of those and Jackson State had all three of them.
Yet Ray was in the winning locker room after all. And his team gets another chance to show those three Es as Mississippi State hosts Loyola this Sunday. Tipoff is noon for the second edition of the ‘Game of Change' commemoration of the 1963 NCAA meeting of these programs. Loyola won last year's inaugural meeting in Chicago.