Mississippi State took advantage of frequent trips to the free-throw line to score 28 points on 37 chances. “We’ve been working on our free throws a lot in practice and on our own,” Bulldog Rocquez Johnson said. “We were going to get down low and get banged.”
They did indeed. Three Catamounts fouled out in the process of sending Bulldogs to the charity stripe early and often, though Western Carolina only had four more fouls called on them. Most of the calls came either with Dogs working for two-point tries, or to stop the clock late, which allowed the home team so many more chances. A lot more as WCU was 5-of-10.
“We really did a good getting to the free throw line and making them,” Coach Rick Ray said, after successfully opening his third season with State. “That’s a huge disparity and that’s what you want, to make more free throws than the other team attempted.”
Senior F Johnson and junior C Gavin Ware drew most of the damage, combining for 17 free throw turns. Johnson led all Dogs with 16 points and was 5-of-7 shooting twos when not fouled. Ware was 4-of-7 from the floor and 6-of-8 at the stripe for 14 points. He added 10 rebounds to record his tenth career double-double.
As Ray pointed out, the bigger Bulldogs put Western Carolina in difficult choices: let State power for the close stuff or take the defensive stop risks. “Look where the fouls occurred, they were in the paint, so they would have had opportunity to score if they didn’t get fouled.”
Getting the unguarded line-shots was more key than usual for State. The Catamounts countered with some sharper outside shooting and hit nine treys out of 24 tries. Guards James Sinclair and Rhett Haralson threw in three treys apiece for 20 and 14 points, and guard Mike Brown added 11 more. But the WCU frontcourt was over-matched all evening with just 11 total points, and couldn’t come up with enough rebounds and easy chances inside.
”We executed plays and got everything we needed,” said Johnson. But he was talking mostly of the second half. The first wasn’t a smooth start to the season at all for State, and much of this was directly due to the absence of soph PG I.J. Ready and junior G Craig Sword. The team’s top two ball-handlers are still recovering from back procedures, though Ray had hoped Sword might get cleared by now.
PG Trivante Bloodman soldiered through 32 workman-like minutes with six assists against three turnovers. But the team lost the handle too often in the first period, forced or not, and couldn’t take full advantage of good shooting inside by Ware and Johnson.
Nor said G Fred Thomas did the Dogs pressure the visiting team as intended. “We didn’t have enough urgency in the first half, we were kind of lackadaisical. We needed to step it up, we’re better than this. We came out the second half and played great defense.”
But in the first it was WCU getting ahead 16-10 after five minutes as the home team seemed unready for the season tipoff. The spark came in an unexpected manner, with some rare outside offense. Thomas threw in a three, and freshman G Maurice Dunlap two more. But it was free throws by Bloodman and a putback of his own miss by Ware that let State lead 31-30 at halftime.
Ray said State hadn’t been able to scout some Catamount sets, but it was really a tight team that slowed themselves in the first half by not letting the defense set a tone. Besides the sense of urgency, Ray did see better communication on defense after the break that stopped WCU transition. Thomas attacked for a three-point play, Ware and Johnson went back to work inside, and the Bulldogs gradually crept away.
Only a few more late turnovers kept things interesting in the final minutes, but the Bulldogs made five of their last six free chances while WCU couldn’t get the right shots at the right times. Three series were buzzed by the shot clock as State’s half-court defense clamped down.
Catamounts Coach Larry Hunter thought his team handled the press without problems and executed the offense well enough. “The start of the second Mississippi State really established Ware, they built a five, six point lead and pretty much played off that. We showed a lot of heart and grit. We didn’t shoot it well but that was a credit to Mississippi State’s height and length.”
Thomas had 15 points with a pair of treys. Ray used nine of his eleven available Dogs, allowing freshmen Dunlap, Demetrius Houston, and Oliver Black and redshirts Travis Daniels and Fallou Ndoye their first senior college action. The win was Mississippi State’s 400th victory in Humphrey Coliseum since the facility’s December 1975 opening.
Ray has a weekend to evaluate the opening night results, and get a read on Sword’s availability too, before State hosts Mississippi Valley State Monday at 7:00.