“This win gives us confidence and shows how we actually can play,” guard I.J. Ready said. “We know we have it, we practice it every day, we just have to show it.”
What Mississippi State showed Friday evening was something missing for a few frustrating weeks. The Bulldogs gave effort from tip-to-horn of such degree even their coaches wondered where that had been. And, how to sustain it when Southeastern Conference season begins next week.
“I’m just happy for our guys,” Coach Rick Ray said. “They needed that win, the coaching staff needed that win, the Bulldog nation needed that win.”
Needed was under-stating the situation. A 19-point home loss to McNeese State earlier in the week left the Bulldogs shaken to end the 2014 portion of the schedule. A series of team talks later, they opened 2015 faster. And fiercer too, just as discussed in a series of squad meetings.
“We’ve been stressing play with energy,” Ready said. “It had to happen, we got beat by nearly 20 on our home floor.”
There was no lack of energy. Mississippi State (7-6) practically crackled from tip-off and while they did not always execute they didn’t stop putting pressure on the Seminoles (8-6). This time, the other team cracked.
Guard Craig Sword’s driving layup at 48 seconds gave a three-point margin to defend, which they did by drawing an offensive foul on FSU’s Jarquez Smith. Off another foul Forward Roquez Johnson’s free throws padded the lead enough to withstand the inevitable series of end-game whistles. Ready and guard Fred Thomas were good on four more free throws for the final margin.
Mississippi State shot 46.2% from the floor, their best accuracy in a month against a major-conference club. This despite going just 2-of-14 at the arc, which normally would have dug the Dogs into an offensive hole. The difference this night was cashing-in on more inside opportunities. Or just trying to make more things happen at the rim.
This despite Florida State putting a trio of seven-footers on the floor. The Dogs were not intimidated at all. “Coach said don’t be scared of their size,” forward Travis Daniels said. “If you go in and they block the first shot don’t let that stop you. I just wanted to keep going in there, Gavin (Ware) was banging, Roquez. We were harping on that from the scouting report.”
State discovered the tall Seminoles weren’t especially active on defense and if five shots did get blocked the Dogs came away with enough rebounds for second shots. Their first shots weren’t shabby either, 22-of-38 inside the arc and most of that from the lane that belied Florida State’s height.
”We had to have more paint attacks,” Ray said. “Our guys did a good job with multiple paint attacks and were patient on the offensive end.” The MSU coach knew he had something good going when Florida State dropped into more zone defending than seen on scouting video.
It also helped to have center Ware back in action after nagging issues from the injured left leg. He wasn’t full-speed but was load enough for the Noles scoring ten points on 4-of-7 work with a game-best eight rebounds. Ware’s return was just in time too as starting center Fallou Ndoye was limited to 11 minutes before fouling out.
“Quite simply we don’t win that game without Gavin,” Ray said. “He’s not 100% on that bad wheel and had to play extended minutes. I thought it was huge for our team.”
Daniels added 12 points including a clutch second-half trey at 7:01, after making the ‘Noles respect his driving potential. Sword added eight points on attacking moves mostly too. But it was Ready to made the biggest difference, as the smallest Dog on the floor. He was 6-of-7 shooting with a team-leading 14 points, and only a couple of his attempts were from farther than ten feet. Most were point-blank as Ready defied the defense repeatedly.
”When we played McNeese State we lost because we didn’t have any energy, nobody was out there playing,” Ready said. “I tried to be the energy, come to offense or defense, and let them just pick up off that.” Three steals showed Ready’s energy on defense.
Team energy let the Bulldogs throw the first punches and take a fast 10-4 lead. Florida State was able to go ahead both mid-period and at halftime but State’s defensive energy was disrupting the Seminoles, particularly their bounce-pass plays and post-feeds. FSU would end with 19 turnovers, most forced.
The visitors still led 39-38 at 11:16 of the last half when Johnson powered for a layup, then came back with a tip-in of guard Fred Thomas’ miss. Florida State tied it for the last time at 5:01 but never again led. They hurt their own second-half cause with ill-timed misses at the foul line that gave State enough breathing room down the stretch.
Guard Devon Bookert led everyone with 16 points and guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes had 12 points. But the big ‘Noles were kept, or sometimes kept themselves, in check offensively with some surprising and un-forced misses. Despite the size miss-match State was out-rebounded by just 30-28, again reflecting the effort and energy.
Ray acknowledged that the team meetings Ready reported was as productive as it had been intense. “They weren’t very nice at times and some things needed to be said that probably are not for public consumption. But some things were said that needed to be said. Our guys saw we were squandering opportunities to be a good ball club.”
How good the Bulldogs can be remains unproven. But they get their chance to show more progress soon as Mississippi State opens SEC season at home January 7, with Tennessee coming to town.