November 11, 2012 1:06:40 AM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
TROY, Ala. -- The rebuilding of the Mississippi State University men's basketball program began Friday night with a reminder to fans this process is going to have to be with a big picture philosophy.
In the short term, a horrid first half that included several defensive breakdowns and high levels of confusion in a new motion offense caused Rick Ray's MSU debut as a Division 1 head coach to be spoiled with a 56-53 loss at Troy University.
For the first time since 2001 in the Preseason National Invitational Tournament, MSU (0-1) began its regular season on the road as they helped open Troy's $31 million dollar on-campus Trojan Arena to a last-second victory for the host school. Troy (1-0) would get a contested fallaway jump shot with 1.6 seconds left by guard Emil Jones to secure the victory in front of a record crowd of 5,120.
Amazingly, the isolation in the corner for the Hattiesburg native not recruited by any Southeastern Conference schools, was not what Troy coach Dan Maestri had in mind during the timeout.
"I have to give Emil credit for coaching," Maestri said. "We called a different play. Emil is from Hattiesburg and dreamed about this moment since last spring. He is a very composed kid and wasn't having a great game but came to me and said 'coach I got to have this shot' and we said scratch everything we're doing to give Emil the last shot. It's what people dream about and go over and over in their minds. That was a big time shot."
Ray's head coaching debut at MSU didn't get off to the kind of start the former Clemson University and Purdue University assistant coach would've imagined. After appearing to not having any offensive cohesion in a first half that saw on the other end Troy get seemingly as many open looks from three-point range as they wished, MSU would go down by as many as 16 at one point. Troy hit 7-of-17 three-point shots in the first half to take a 32-22 halftime lead that felt like it could've been more judging by the surge of momentum the Trojans grabbed in front of a raucous crowd atmosphere following a 30-9 run.
"In the first half, we didn't show any form of discipline on offense and that's disappointing," Ray said. "In order for this team to be successful we're going to have to grind out some possessions.
"We weren't in attack mode. We took a couple ill advised shots in the first half and when you shoot 4-for-16 from three, you probably ought to look somewhere else and get the ball into the paint."
Getting the basketball into the low block wasn't something MSU seemed interested in doing until it was late in the second half when freshman center Gavin Ware established post presence. The former Starkville High School star was able to get consistent touches inside the paint and ended his first college basketball game with an impressive 10 points off 5-for-6 shooting, seven rebounds and a block in 24 minutes of action coming off the bench.
"Gavin is a throwback (center) where he isn't interested in being out on the perimeter and shooting threes and he wants the ball deep with his back to the basket," Ray said.
MSU was once again out rebounded by smaller squad Friday night just like in the exhibition opener against NAIA's William Carey University.
Troy, who didn't start a player taller than 6-foot-6, won the rebounding battle 34-33 and decisively on the offensive glass 14-8.
Jones grabbed five offensive rebounds to go with his 10 points and three assists in 28 minutes of play.
MSU's lack of frontcourt depth might have been due to the loss of a potential starter days before the opening tip. Sophomore forward Roquez Johnson did not make the trip after suffering a concussion in practice Thursday. Johnson was knocked completely out after falling to the floor during drills a day before the season opener and was immediately ruled out of competition.
MSU junior guard Jalen Steele did showcase more of a complete game on both ends of the floor as he led all scorers with 16 points and tied Ware for a team-high with seven rebounds. Steele was active on the defensive end with a steal and layup off an errant pass at half court.
He also hit a pair of clutch free throws in front of the Troy student section to tie the score at 53 with one minute and eight seconds left in the game.
"We did this to ourselves in that first half," Steele said. "We didn't play well at the start and it costs us. We thought we could steal it late there but couldn't overcome the hole we'd dug ourselves."
The comeback effort of MSU in the second half was spearheaded by sophomore point guard Trivante Bloodman. The Olney (Ill.) Central College transfer originally from New York got the start but was replaced 27 seconds into the game by Craig Sword after an early hand check foul. However, it was Bloodman's energy on offense and defensive intensity that swung the momentum for MSU and got them on a 20-11 run in the second half. Bloodman would finish with 11 points, four rebounds, one assist and two turnovers in 33 minutes.
Troy's victory snapped MSU's nine-game win streak in the series and created a memorable experience even for Maestri, who is beginning his 32nd season with the Trojans.
"For this team to experience winning the first game in this arena," Maestri said. "You can only do that one time and that was tonight."
In a disappointing 2011-12 campaign for the Trojans, which saw them finish the season 10-18, the undersized squad was 0-13 in games where they shot under 40 percent from the field. However, Friday night their 36.2 percent shooting and 56 points were enough to knock off a Southeastern Conference opponent for just the third time in 43 tries in school history.
"I obviously want to thank Mississippi State as well because they could've taken the way out," Maestri said. "We had a contract but I've seen it over the years where a guy gets a job and get control over his schedule, you just pay the buy-out clause and don't come. It was great they had enough class to back up what they said and come here tonight because that made the game so much more attractive to have an SEC school open up the arena."
MSU will continue its search for Ray's first win with the Bulldogs program with Tuesday's home opener against Florida Atlantic University.