“We were hyped and the crowd was hyped,” center Gavin Ware said. “That was an eye opener for me, probably one of the first times I’ve seen it really rocking.”
Humphrey Coliseum was indeed alive. Just the beginning of the Ben Howland era was enough to resurrect interest, as Mississippi State announced a sellout earlier Friday. Along that theme, it was a resurrection of sorts for Howland himself. He’d coached his last college game in March 2013 at UCLA.
“I didn’t think about that until today,” Howland said. “I was really excited.”
As Bulldog fans read the box score they will share the excitement. 106 points was the most by a State squad in 15 seasons, as well as the highest output on opening night ever for a Howland club. Coming after three seasons of frustrations on both scoreboard and stat sheet, it confirmed a complete change of program direction.
Not even double-digit deficits in each half was going to ruin this opening act, much less bring back bad memories of recent years. “You get tired of losing at some point,” guard IJ Ready said. “It was having a positive mindset.”
That, and players prepared to win for the first time. Down 60-50 early in the second period and fretting some foul troubles, Mississippi State settled down the defense first. Then, it was point guard Ready cracking the whip on a complete comeback. The first fact fed into the second, of course.
“Our transition offense, I bet we had 40% of (baskets) in transition,” Howland said.
Transition was only practical after making some stops and forcing Eagle mistakes. “The offensive end came second nature, but the defense end was taking pride in that,” Ware said. Ware was a proud Dog on the board, with nine of his 13 rebounds in the second half as Eastern Washington finally found driving lanes closing.
Those misses though resulted from Howland switching defenders, putting big guard Fred Thomas on EWU’s Austin McBroom after a nine-point first half. McBroom wasn’t the high scorer by any means, but “We couldn’t stay in front of him,” Howland said. Certainly not in the zone defense State was forced to play much of mid-game against the coach’s wishes.
Thomas on the perimeter and Ware inside, with good help from forward Travis Daniels, threw EWU off their stride. Which let Ready find his. After all, “We’re a transition team,” Ready said. His team down 62-53, Ready scored seven points in less than two minutes.
With the Eagles unable to get back on Ready’s daring drives, other Dogs were left open to create their own baskets. Ware tied it 70-70 with a tip-in, and Thomas gave State a lead with his own layup. Before the Bulldogs slowed they had gone on a 20-0 tear to lead 86-70 by 7:41.
“The Hump was rocking,” Ready said. “And we started getting stops. Fred came in and kept them out of the paint defensively. And we capitalized on the offensive end.”
Ready would post 25 points, eight of them on free throws, in his 35 minutes. Ware still won the scoring race with 26 points, making 11 of his 14 shots and blocking three Eagle attempts. “Gavin was tremendous,” said Howland. He kept us in the first half.”
That was Eastern Washington’s half. Down 10-4 early, the Eagles ran their Euro-style offense smartly and got plenty of good looks or easy layups. The Bulldogs were too often flat-footed on defense, and switching to zone didn’t really change that. What it did though was slow the pace of first half fouls as Ware had two quick personals and backup center Fallou Ndoye three.
Down as far as 53-43 in the first period State did well to pull within three points by halftime, with the all three frontcourt Eagles already in double-digits. This was when the Bulldogs showed just how different a club they have become under new management.
“Sometimes last year we’d have had our heads down,” Ready said. “Now we know we’re fixing to pick it back up and keep going.”
It did not hurt having confidence in the offense. Despite trailing, State shot 58% in the first half, almost the same as EWU. If they could ever make a series of stops the Bulldogs could come back. They did, then ran away.
“That was huge,” Howland said. “The way we won tonight. To be down ten both halves and have a lot of fight, it showed the guys have a lot of heart.”
Daniels shot 7-of-9 for 16 points and Thomas added ten, while freshman Quindarry Weatherspoon came off the bench for 12 in his college debut with a pair of treys. Weatherspoon was more important on opening night because classmate Malik Newman was held out after an October turf toe injury. Howland hopes Newman can be ready for regular practice by Sunday.
For the Eagles, forwards Bogdan Bliznyuk and Felix Van Hofe each had 21 points and McBroom finished with 15. Though EWU had some aggressive big bodies the rebounding was lopsidedly in State’s favor, 39 to 25 with 17 second-chance Bulldog points.
“I was worried about this game,” Howland admitted. “They shot 58% the first half and I can’t remember the last time I had a team that allowed 48 points at halftime.” But, the coach said, “I was porud of how we didn’t drop our head. We fought back. Our conditioning helped. And obviously the crowd was great.”
Such an opening show should bring back a good crowd Monday when State hosts Southern University at 7:00.