December 13, 2013 10:14:19 PM
TUPELO - Rick Ray wasn't happy with his team's reaction to a 68-62 victory over Southeastern Louisiana Friday night.
Following a 10-win season last year, the Bulldogs second-year coach wants his team to start feeling better about getting wins anyway they can.
"I just told our guys in the locker room that hey, we're 6-2 right now and I want them to start feeling better about winning college basketball games," Ray said.
MSU withstood the scoring punch of Southeastern Louisiana forward Antonnio Benton's 26 points as the Hattiesburg native, who came into Friday night averaging nine points per game, continually found holes in the MSU's packed-in defense.
"This is a good win for us," Ray said. "We changed some things defensively and at the end of the day they only made 6 out of 24 3-point baskets and only got to the line eight times. Those are some really good numbers."
In what has been essentially a broken record of the 2013-14 season for MSU (6-2), the Bulldogs rebounded from a lackluster first half to win in front of 2,035 fans at the newly renovated BancorpSouth Arena against a low-major opponent.
Friday's clash marked ten years to the day since MSU's last visit to BancorpSouth Arena, a 77-59 win against New Orleans in 2003.
The Bulldogs used a second-half run by sophomore guard Craig Sword to overcome a 6-point lead from the Lions (3-6). Sword was the only MSU player to finish in double digits with 22 points on 9 of 11 shooting by continually taking SELA defenders off the dribble for easy baskets.
"Of course, when we start losing we pick it up, but now we are going to have to pick it up a little more every game," Sword said.
The momentum turned quickly against MSU when senior forward Roquez Johnson left the game after nearly 12 minutes of action on an apparent injury to his left knee and did not return. Johnson's loss forced a already thin MSU frontline to play with Dre Applewhite at the power forward position for the remainder of the contest. Johnson returned to the bench late in the first half with a large knee brace on and a ice bag wrapped around the left knee. Ray said after the game he was unclear the extent of his injury and the length of time the senior would be out of the lineup.
"The depth issue didn't hurt us so bad because (Southeastern Louisiana) isn't very big," Ray said. "Of course, when we start facing SEC opponents, it'll start to be a problem."
As promised from his media teleconference earlier in the week, Ray mixed up the starting lineup. The second-year coach gave Johnson his first start of the season, Applewhite his second start of the season and allowing freshman point guard IJ Ready to return to the lineup after his hamstring injury. In response to the shakeup, which became less tangible due to a early injury by Applewhite, MSU got defensive stops on 11 of SELA's first 12 possessions of the game. The message was sent loud and clear to players taken out of the starting lineup such as Fred Thomas that the defensive end is where the Bulldogs will earn minutes played.
"Coach is always telling us just don't worry about our offense and just defend," Thomas said.
The problem for MSU was SELA used five three-point shots in the first half, including a contested fallaway three at the end of the half, to take a 33-32 halftime lead. The Lions were down by 20 or more points in each of the other three previous games this season against Southeastern Conference opponents (down 25 at Missouri, down 24 vs. LSU and down 20 at Arkansas). Last season MSU was 0-19 when down at halftime and the Bulldogs already have two come-from-behind wins in the second half.
Despite only shooting 3 of 10 from the field, Thomas was able to affect play in other ways by grabbing six rebounds, getting a critical block near the end of the game and burying two key foul shots to secure the win.
"We did a better job of worrying about our defense in the second half," Thomas said. "That goes for me especially. It is a situation where you can't get worried about your offense when the shots aren't falling. When you play defense hard, it can lead to good offense. That is the focus right now."
SELA was simply unable to find any consistent scoring punch other than Benton as the other Lions players finished 15 of 46 from the field.
MSU returns home to host Florida A&M Tuesday night. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. in the Humphrey Coliseum. Santa Claus will also be at the arena to greet fans prior to the 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.