“I just felt everybody played good as a team tonight, and it showed,” said one of the seniors, forward Roquez Johnson.
The Bulldogs did play good, and got to conclude the regular schedule 13-18, 6-12 SEC. They also snapped a five-loss streak in the process and in advance of next week’s SEC Tournament. There Ray’s team will be seeded #12 and will play #13 Auburn in the 6:00 game. Cellar-dweller Missouri is 9-22, 3-15 and plays #11 South Carolina.
It hasn’t been the regular season Bulldogs expected, having once been 5-7 SEC. Ending it in a better way did give Ray something to enjoy for a change.
“I was really happy we could send our senior class off with a win. Those guys did a really good job, especially starting off the game in an unfamiliar situation and doing a good job when it’s all said and done.”
The stat sheet may hold the most miss-leading line of any in the country tonight. It shows the Bulldog bench out-scoring Missouri subs 35 points to nine. This of course was because Ray had a backup point guard and two walk-ons taking tipoff. Most didn’t stay around long and four of them combined for just two points, both from regular Johnson.
Fortunately the one regular State starter who set the pace. Junior guard Craig Sword scored a game-high 15 points, hitting half his shots and twice from the three-point line. The second trey came soon after Missouri had made it last, best bid at staying in the game.
Tiger Namon Wright hit one of his team’s five longballs for a 36-32 score with 8:30 still to play. This capped a long, slow comeback from their 31-19 deficit at 17:48. Which is another way of saying, the Bulldogs went absolutely frigid for more than nine minutes.
Bulldog guard I.J. Ready was able to get a basket at 7:23 to stem what passed for Missouri momentum. It was Sword who truly took charge. He slashed to the goal for a layup at 6:52, then after Wright missed a trey try…Sword didn’t. His longball at 5:43 all but assured State could celebrate Senior Day properly.
This was Sword’s eighth-straight game to score in double-digits, and this time he didn’t have to rely on the long shot much. Hitting jumper inside the arc worked well. “My shot opens up my drives and it gets pretty easy if I keep knocking down shots.” Sword also had three assists and two blocks, one a spectacular flying swat of a layup attempt.
Center Gavin Ware had a nine-point, eight-rebound evening with a block. The surprise contribution came from freshman forward Demetrius Houston with nine points and five boards, all in 18 minutes. The rebounds set up Houston’s point as he came away with two clutch defensive boards.
“I know it was ugly in the second half because Missouri did a good job defensively,” Ray said. “But Chicken made some big shots, and Demetrius Houston going to the free throw line.”
Tiger guards Wright and Keith Shamburger had 12 points and two treys apiece, while forward Jonathan Williams added ten points and a dozen rebounds. Missouri actually came away with more rebounds, 37 to 32, and had eleven offensive boards. But they only had five second-chance points to show for the effort.
“Most of the year we’ve been offensively challenged, and tonight was no exception,” UM Coach Kim Anderson said. “We missed free throws (8 of 15), in the second half we turned the ball over two or three times for no reason.”
The Tigers were truly challenged on the offensive end. They did not score baskets on any consecutive-possessions, and shot just 30% overall. The Bulldogs weren’t exactly on fire themselves at just under 40% accuracy, but the defense and Missouri shooting woes made up for anything else.
“I was really frustrated with our defense the last two games and our calling card has to be our defense,” Ray said.
The Bulldogs don’t take much in the way of a well-stacked deck to Nashville. And this team needs to win again at a SEC Tournament to equal last season’s win total of 14. But at least for an evening they could feel good on the home floor. Even Johnson, who fouled-out after just 13 total minutes and two free throws—he missed his only shot—could smile again.
“It wasn’t as I expected, but as long as we got the W I feel good about that,” said Johnson. Though, as Ray noted, “Roquez left with a stupid foul, so the way he came in was the way he left.”