Thomas might have exaggerated the total. The results weren’t inflated. The junior guard knocked down a couple of quick three-point shots to jump-start Mississippi State towards a 89-68 win over visiting Mississippi Valley State. Five Bulldogs scored in double-digits as State won its second home game of the new season.
Guard Thomas finished with a trio of treys and 17 points, and made six of his eight free throws too. And he was not even the leading scorer. That was forward Rocquez Johnson with 20 points, followed by center Gavin Ware’s 19. The Bulldogs shot nearly 60% as a club, completely dominated the backboards on each end, and blocked six Delta Devil shots for good measure.
Still Coach Rick Ray did not need look far for compliments and complaints alike.
”A good win for our guys,” said Ray, but “I was disappointed with the way we performed in the second half. We got outscored, the biggest thing was the way we turned the basketball over. I thought we gave up way too many points in both halves.”
This wasn’t mere nit-picking by the coach. His team dominated in so many other ways that giving the ball away 26 times took some of the edge off success. Mississippi Valley State did go all-out aggressive much of the night, their only chance to compete with the bigger and deeper Bulldogs. This was sure despite Ray’s warnings to get State caught-up at times in the pushed pace.
“For us to grow we can’t play against Mississippi Valley, we have to play against ourselves. And 26 turnovers, we didn’t get better today.”
At the same time, or at least in the first half, that hurry-up style by Valley played to Mississippi State’s own strengths. When the Bulldogs beat a press or a trap, they scored; rather, Johnson and Ware did with 18 points on 9-of-12 shooting before intermission. That and Thomas’ sharper outside shooting allowed State to blow it open early and easily.
Thomas didn’t hit the team’s first trey; that went to forward Travis Daniels just 20 seconds after tipoff. Thomas added his at 19:11 and 17:54. “That comes from shooting before the game,” Thomas said. His next two attempts beyond the arc didn’t go down because Thomas did, fouled hard each time. The second saw him struck where a hand oughtn’t go, meriting a flagrant foul and a total of five free throws with four makes. State also kept the ball and while Ware missed on a lob Johnson was there for the tip and 23-8 lead at 15:47.
“I felt I bring a lot of energy to the team,” Johnson said. “Fred gave us a spark and after that I gave the team a couple of energy plays.”
Down decisively so soon, the Devils had nothing to lose by pushing the pace on offense and pressuring all-over defensively. The latter approach didn’t help a lot as long as State passed properly, because presses and particularly half-court traps always left some Dog open for an uncontested score.
“The difference in this game was we played a lot of advantage basketball,” Thomas said. “They trapped a lot so we were able to get out in transition and pick them apart.”
State’s lead peaked in the second half at 73-40, when Ray put a lineup of three and four freshmen on the floor without a real point guard. Mississippi Valley was able to parlay this into an adjusted press and trap. “We put more pressure on the guards and let the big guys handle the ball, that was the biggest difference,” Devil Coach Andre Payne said.
Once the turnovers started they rarely ceased, as from 13:28 to 7:00 State scored just one basket but lost the ball nine times. Ware ended the dry spell with a three-point play, not that Valley was ever a real threat to rally all the way back. The margin did not drop below 21 points the rest of the evening.
Guard Trivante Bloodman scored 11 points for State and Daniels 10. Every scholarship Dog who played had at least two rebounds with Ware’s eight leading the roster. Valley got 18 points from guard Jordan Washington and 17 by guard Tyler Corley, as that pair threw up a combined 15 trey tries with five makes. The Devils took 28 shots from the arc out of their 68 total attempts, and were crushed 47-25 on the glass.
Mississippi Valley State returned west on Highway 82 at 0-2.
Ray saw mixed results for the second game. He did agree that not having point guard IJ Ready or guard Craig Sword, both recovering from October back procedures, was a factor as far as ball-handling and coping with tempo. Their absence did not affect shooting obviously, it was the shots never taken which concerned the coach.
”I like the 60% from the field. I just don’t like the turnovers. I have no problem playing fast as long as we’re attacking and getting a quality shot each time. And the most important thing is getting a shot, and not turning the ball over.”
Mississippi State could afford a few fumbles against a SWAC visitor. This Saturday could be another matter entirely as MSU hosts Utah State in a noon game at Humphrey Coliseum.