He did. Coming off the Bulldog bench, junior forward Thomas made lots of things happen. His 18 points led Mississippi State in a 73-67 victory over visiting Louisiana State. The Bulldogs bounced-back from consecutive close losses and are 10-11, 3-5 SEC.
The Tigers left 16-5, 5-3, and with a painful hit to RPI and pride alike. The former was one reason Coach Rick Ray valued the victory more than most. “It’s not just a win, it’s a win against a quality ball club that is a NCAA Tournament team.”
And, a win earned in just about all of the hard ways. The Bulldogs had long stretches of futile offense, missed far too many free throws, and allowed enough second-chance points to keep the Tigers in contention. Even when the outcome should have been iced, three unnecessary fouls under the goal on layup tries kept LSU barely breathing.
At least the relieved Ray could joke, sort-of, about the ending. “We’ll use this as a learning too. It’s best to do that after a win.”
This remained a win as enough Bulldogs made sure not to let one get away. Thomas, more than most. After making modest first-half impact with five points on two attempted shots, Thomas just about took over crunch-time of the second. He was 4-of-6 from the floor, all makes at close range; and hit five free throws in as many chances.
This was after a 0-of-6 evening at Oxford. Normally Thomas would have gone into an offensive shell after that sort of game. Ray wasn’t allowing it this time.
”Coach told me be aggressive, not a stand-still shooting guy,” Thomas said. LSU certainly wished Thomas had stayed-put. Especially so on maybe the game’s signature moment. Taking the pass deep in the right wing, Thomas blew past one defender on the baseline and before a taller Tiger was ready exploded to the goal for a two-handed slam at 15:46.
“I felt it got me going a little bit,” Thomas said. Not just him, either.
“Fred came out and gave us a lot of life,” Ray said. Life State had to get though, as starting forward Travis Daniels struggled through eight scoreless minutes. The other option, freshman Demetrius Houston, wasn’t any better off the bench and at times was worse with three turnovers and six missed shots.
So, it had to be Thomas. He came through. “I would pay somebody a lot of money if they could figure out the enigma Fred Thomas is,” admitted Ray, who in a one-on-one meeting this week told the veteran to just be consistent for a change. Thomas was.
So were other starters, fortunately. Center Gavin Ware got a dozen points and ten rebounds, his third double-double of the season, despite dealing with lots of tall Tigers. Out front point guard I.J. Ready scored 12 points as well with four assists, two steals, and no turnovers.
Then there was Craig Sword, coming off a career SEC game with 27 points at Ole Miss. The junior settled for 14 this day, but contributed five assists with two steals and drew lots of LSU fouls with gutsy moves into the lane. This, despite signs a surgically-repaired back might be bothering him again.
Ray said Sword had missed the last two practice days and wasn’t sure to play today. But as for grimaces and limps and such after contact? “It might be strange but his back didn’t hurt him as bad on offense,” the coach said. “That’s something we’ve got to go over with the medical staff.”
Tiger Coach Johnny Jones wasn’t amused at how his team let this one get away. Much of the damage was self-inflicted too. LSU’s offense was out-of-whack from the start, missing 16 of the first 19 shots with just one field goal from tip-off to 13:30. If not for hitting the glass hard to get second chances, and enough missed MSU free throws, things could have been even uglier than a 31-28 halftime deficit.
“I didn’t think we did a good enough job there in the first half of making plays, only shooting 29%,” Jones said. “We’re a much more effective team than that.”
A big reason for inefficiency on offense was the smallest Dog. At the point Ready was giving fits to Josh Gray, the guard signed by State’s previous coaching staff but who detoured to two other stops before ending up in LSU. Gray did accumulate 13 points on 6-of-14 shooting but had twice as many turnovers as assists.
It was Ready getting into and practically under Gray that disrupted LSU’s initial ball-movement, and let Ray mix zone and man defenses as needed. “If you help on (Gray) it leases easy buckets, we wanted to guard him as much as we could 1-on-1 and I thought IJ did a really good job of that.”
Shooter Keith Hornsby picked up slack with 15 points but was 5-of-17 in the process. Inside, elite forward Jordan Mickey nearly dominated the day. Ordinarily a 25-point, 20-rebound game would have done just that, too. But LSU couldn’t or more likely didn’t always get the ball to Mickey, and the rest of the club was a combined 15-of-51 shooting.
All this, and the visitors still had excellent shots to win despite themselves. They led 57-54 at four minutes. Forward Roquez Johnson, sidelined for long stretches by fouls, ignored issues with officials and got to work. He rebounded for fouls and free throws, slashed by a flat-footed defender for a go-ahead dunk at 3:26 and did it again at 1:58.
“We had the lead, we needed some stops, and we didn’t get them,” Jones said.
At the other end, instead of patience against extended defense the Tigers forced some perimeter shots, all missing. The Bulldogs were able to lead by six points five times in the final minute, all but the last time committing a needless foul when giving up two to LSU would have been smarter.
So much, Ray said, for Thomas crediting a two-minute situation practice with holding on to win. “I don’t know if it helped because we were pretty bad down the stretch!” Not bad enough to save the Tigers though. And to be fair, the Dogs probably could not turn-off the mindset that had put them in position to win. Instead of pulling back after defensive rebounds, State ran every chance possible before LSU could get set up.
“We just wanted to push the ball and be aggressive,” Ready said. “We didn’t want to be conservative and turn the ball over. They probably thought we were going to be conservative but we stayed in attack mode.”
State also made a late-game change for the better, at the foul line. After a string of missed free throws which also kept the Tigers in reach, the Dogs hit all their last eight chances to seal success.
“Obviously that’s a great win for our guys and our program,” Ray said. “I think they’re the second most-talented team in the SEC.” For one day though they had to settle for being second-best in Humphrey Coliseum, as Mississippi State got a much-needed win.
“This is our sixth pretty good game,” said Ready. “We wanted to get over the hump. It was a team win, we played together and came out with a victory.”