Bulldogs Grind Down Clayton State 59-46

It wasn’t exactly the sort of tune-up anyone wanted ahead of a weekend road trip. “Honestly, it felt like a loss, the way we came out and played,” guard Trivante Bloodman said. It wasn’t that, fortunately, as Mississippi State sputtered to a 59-46 win over visiting Clayton State.

Win or, well, win Coach Rick Ray wasn’t in much better a mood than his players after a less-than-dominating performance against the Division II team from Georgia.

”There’s always positives,” Ray said. “But as coaches we focus on the negatives. There’s some positives but I can’t name them right now.”

A positive point is that for the first time since November 2010 a Bulldog team is 4-0. Because they play in a lower Division, Clayton State could not count this game either way in their standings. So the Lakers left officially 4-0, too.

Negatives? Those were much faster to find. The Bulldogs shot just 38% overall and whiffed on all seven shots from the arc. If not for accurate free-throwing and a lot of opportunities to practice, 22-of-27, they might have been in real trouble.

More than this, the coach was unhappy how Mississippi State responded to a strong Saturday performance in beating Utah State. A short turnaround, and the pending trip to the Corpus Christi Coastal Challenge, made it essential to schedule an easy win in-between. The Dogs didn’t make anything easy for themselves.

“I’m disappointed with the way our guys approached this game,” Ray said. “I knew getting ready for the exempt tournament it would be a challenge, so I talked to our guys about they handled any sort of success. They did a poor job of that.”

What the Bulldogs did well, or well enough, was use their size to advantage. Against a four-guard, one-forward Laker lineup, State scored 38 points in the paint. The rest came from the straight stripe. Nothing else fell. Even for a team that doesn’t count on a lot of perimeter scoring this was poor shooting.

“It was just a lot of open shots,” Bloodman said. “It wasn’t all bad shots, it was open shots and we were just missing.” For that matter the Dogs were barely 50% on attempts within ten feet of the goal. Size saved them here too with a 43-30 rebound advantage and 14 offensive boards.

Clayton State was not a lot better from long range, 4-of-21. The Lakers were able to attack though, particularly when Ray shuttled in a freshman-dominated lineup, and get some cheap points against flatter-footed Dog defense. Ray said there was so much worry by his players about playing man-defense well, they failed in ‘help’ situations.

Neither side was especially shooting sharp early with seven combined misses before the Lakers got a basket. It was their only lead as guard Fred Thomas converted a three-point play. State was able to take control before halftime, going on a 12-0 tear with consecutive power baskets by first center Gavin Ware, then forward Rocquez Johnson. On defense those two were cleaning the glass.

“They were taking a lot of bad shots and me and Gavin were just down there waiting for the ball to come off the rim,” Johnson said.

By 9:05 of the second half the lead was up to 48-28, even though Ray had already used a healthy margin to give lots of freshmen and redshirts minutes together. The Lakers picked up the pace for a run of their own that cut the deficit to 51-43 with 3:23 left and Ray was calling for time. The Dogs didn’t score coming out of the break but Clayton State did miss a trey try for their last real chance. Four free throws by Ware and a breakaway Johnson layup made sure there was no upset.

Johnson finished with 15 points and eight rebounds, and Ware added 11 points with seven boards. They didn’t shoot great either but often covered their own misses for putbacks.

”It was pretty easy to figure out what you needed to do, because we could get the ball in the post any time we wanted to,” Ray said. Point guard Bloodman had 12 points, eight of them on perfect free throwing. He also had just two assists, in fact State only had five scoring passes all evening.

Kelsey Terry led Clayton State with 14 points and JC Bonney had 13. The Lakers got just 15 free throw chances and missed nine of them.

Ray’s main takeaway from Monday night wasn’t so much negative as realistic. With a two-game tournament upcoming, and St. Louis scheduled for the 8:30 Friday evening matchup, the coach is about to adjust those rotations. Radically, even. The return of sophomore guard I.J. Ready (19 minutes with two points, two assists, and two steals) will change things for the backcourt. Though, Ray said, junior guard Craig Sword still has not had any contact practice and is doubtful for now.

Still, “Some of these guys that are playing are going to have their minutes severely reduced or will not be playing,” predicted Ray. Especially so if those Dogs don’t adjust their attitudes in the next practices before Wednesday afternoon departure for Texas.

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