A forced turnover on the Northern Colorado end of the Mississippi Coliseum court turned into a fastbreak featuring that trio. Malik Newman was in the middle with the ball, a lone Bear defender between him and the goal and Mississippi State teammates to either side. Newman might have tried to take it all the way himself, but wisely looked to pass.
Fred Thomas was on the right flank and Newman did flick a gaze that way. But his feed went to Quindarry Weatherspoon instead for a flying slam and 35-24 lead.
There was still six minutes of that half and a whole ‘nother period to play. But the home-town crowd saw what they came for from the combined representatives of Callaway, Jim Hill, and Velma Jackson Highs. Oh, that and a Mississippi State victory, with a 93-69 final in Coach Ben Howland’s first trip to the Jackson arena. The Bulldogs improved to 6-5 before their Christmas break, while the UNC Bears are 3-9. Since the facility opened in 1962 Mississippi State teams are 17-6 in Jackson.
Newman might have won that many games himself in the Coliseum over his spectacular high school career. State might even want to work a swap for the court, if it guarantees this sort of shooting. “It was great being back home,” Newman said. He was 6-of-11 overall and 4-of-8 at the arc for a game-leading 20 points.
“My teammates did a great job of finding me and got me some wide open looks, and I was able to knock them down.”
The elder of the trio, senior Thomas, had 13 points with a couple of treys; while freshman Weatherspoon scored 10. All totals might have been higher had Howland left them in longer, but the Bulldogs got things under sufficient second-half control to trim the minutes. In the first half though they accounted for 27 of the 49 first-half points.
“It was great being back home,” Thomas repeated. “And we also played unselfish.” Howland enjoyed that part. “21 assists on 32 baskets, that’s what you want to see out of your team.”
It wasn’t entirely a backcourt Bulldog show. Center Gavin Ware worked hard in the paint for his 19 points on 8-of-10 shooting and blocked a pair of Bear shots. At the other end of the lineup point guard IJ Ready tied his career high for assists with eleven.
“IJ was phenomenal tonight, that’s the kind of point guard numbers I want to see,” Howland said. “Gavin did a great job scoring in the low post.”
Northern Colorado didn’t make things too easy, too soon. The initial lead swapped side to side until Ware dunked, State forced a turnover, and Newman struck for three and a 13-9 scoreboard. Newman hit again for a second-chance trey as the Bulldogs never trailed again. It was Thomas scoring seven-straight, with a couple of longballs, that broke it open 32-21.
The Bears tried to trim a 15-point halftime deficit, but Newman was ready with a response. His consecutive bombs in the second half built the MSU lead to 20 points, exactly his total at the time. By the eight minute mark that margin was 26 points, largest of State’s season to date. It would reach 90-59 before the Bears stuck several late shots while Bulldogs were missing.
“I’m excited for the way we played tonight going into Christmas,” Howland said. “I thought our unselfishness offensively was really fun to watch as a coach, and I’m sure as a spectator.” 58% shooting was certain to make the coach happy, though he was not quite so satisfied allowing 47% to the Bears. But the Bulldogs had their best showing so far in a zone defense as many of UNC’s made-treys came too late to matter.
This game also saw the debut of true freshman forward Aric Holman. Preseason knee surgery made his play this rookie year questionable but Newman’s recovery went faster than projected. He played 11 minutes, and while only contributing two points--with an initial basket on a dunk—and two rebounds his availability is another sort of win for State’s short roster.
“I’m excited having him in the lineup,” Howland said. “Ends up, it was the best thing that could have happened. Because he had more pain in that knee than he let on. He got winded tonight but he’s really going to help us. He gives us a really good player coming off the bench with size.”
However, Holman’s activation maintains the same total. Third-year sophomore center Fallou Ndoye is no longer on the team, Howland said, and will transfer. Ndoye had not played in three of the last four games despite being the only backup post player.
“Fallou has played sparingly,” Howland said. “He visited with me Monday night, he elected to transfer to a lower Division 1 school where he has a chance to play. I’ve nothing to say but great things for the kid, I just think this is a good move for him.”
Howland also said that forward Elijah Staley was excused for this game since with the backup quarterback making the Belk Bowl travel party he needed a Christmas break.
Mississippi State is off eight days before hosting North Carolina Central on December 31, with a 1:00 tipoff at Humphrey Coliseum.