November 27, 2013 6:08:04 PM
STARKVILLE - The Mississippi State men's basketball team should be thankful today it earned a victory Wednesday in a game its coach thought it should've lost.
MSU proved once again it can mentally sleepwalk through a game against a Southwestern Athletic Conference opponent without consequences, as it edged Jackson State 58-56 at Humphrey Coliseum.
"We shouldn't need evidence that this can happen," MSU coach Rick Ray said. "We need to embrace who we really are, and until we do that, we're going to struggle."
For the first 21 minutes, MSU (4-1) played like a team ready for a holiday break. The Bulldogs struggled with turnovers and poor shot selection and failed to get center Gavin Ware enough touches in the post.
Ware finished with four points and seven rebounds in 25 minutes.
"Now that he's getting double-doubles every night, teams are just packing it in on him all the time, so we have to go to other options," MSU sophomore guard Craig Sword said.
For the third game this month, MSU defeated a SWAC team, but JSU refused the go away. The Tigers, who the league coaches predicted to finish fifth, held the lead for most of the first 22 minutes.
"What disappoints me the most today is I talked about three things right before the game: I want us to play with enthusiasm, energy, and excitement," Ray said. "We had none of them and Jackson State had all of those things."
After failing to score in the first half, Sword led the Bulldogs with 12 points. A couple days after Ray praised his team praise for finding Ware in the post, MSU reverted to its old ways of failing to see the 6-foot-8 Starkville native near the basket. Ware was constantly bottled up and double teamed in a 2-3 zone defense.
"Offense is about rhythm and defense is about taking you out of that rhythm," Ray said. "When you face a team with rotating defenses, the way you get going offensively is by getting stops yourself. When you're constantly taking the ball out of the net and walking it up, you can't get any rhythm."
JSU guard Julysses Nobles led all scorers with 22 points. The Arkansas transfer constantly got in the lane for easy layups and runners in the second half. MSU, which came in to the game last in the Southeastern Conference in field goal percentage defense, needed its forwards to cheat to help defend dribble penetration by the 6-foot-1 Jackson native.
Nobles leads JSU in scoring and assists with 15.8 points and 3.8 assists per game. In January 2012, he scored 24 points against MSU when he was still at Arkansas.
"The coaches kept telling us we should cheat over because none of our guys were threats from the outside," MSU senior forward Colin Borchert said. "(Nobles) is a good player, and he just found ways to get key buckets anytime his team needed a shot."
Borchert had four of his six points in a stretch that gave MSU a 55-53 lead with 3 minutes, 5 seconds remaining.
Trailing 28-23 at halftime, Ray gave his team a mandate he hoped would help offensive execution.
"I (told them) if they shot a 3-pointer with less than five seconds left in the shot clock they would be taken out of the game," Ray said.
Ray was less than pleased with MSU's defensive effort, especially in the second half when the Bulldogs give up 11 shots within a few feet from the basket.
"You can sit there and fit your pride to say we're this SEC team with all these premier athletes and we should be able to guard them, but the fact of the matter is we simply couldn't do it," Ray said. "I don't know if we're not capable of guarding right now or we're not willing to do it."
Without freshman point guard IJ Ready, MSU struggled to maintain any consistency handling the basketball. The Bulldogs looked like the 2012-13 team that finished in the bottom 10 in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio with six assists on 20 made field goals and 19 giveaways.
Ready isn't expected to return anytime soon after suffering a severe hamstring injury earlier in the month.
Roquez Johnson had 11 points in 25 minutes. Ray was quick to point out he was much more willing to demand the ball down low in the post than Ware.
"Roquez Johnson got touches near the basket, so Gavin has be willing to get position sometimes, too," Ray said.
MSU will play host to noon tip against Loyola University Chicago in a rematch of last year's game. At halftime, there will be a ceremony to honor the 1963 NCAA national semifinal game.
All of the Dispatch MSU Sports Blog readers: feel free to follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/matthewcstevens for up-to-date Mississippi State coverage.
5. A Stone's Throw: The veil COLUMNS