November 28, 2012 9:46:52 AM
Matthew Stevens - email@example.com
STARKVILLE -- The opposite effect occurred once the Mississippi State University men's basketball program arrived home after losing three games at the Maui Invitational.
Instead of being intimidated against a high-power program on a big stage, MSU returned to Starkville determined to be more aggressive against a state rival.
The results was much more to coach Rick Ray's liking.
A much more confident MSU forced 16 turnovers, grabbed 16 offensive rebounds, and scored 22 points in the paint en route to a 60-42 victory in front of an announced crowd of 3,063 at Humphrey Coliseum on Tuesday night.
MSU (2-4) lost to the University of North Carolina by 46 points, to Marquette University by 27, and to the University of Texas by 14 in its three games last week at the Maui Invitational. MSU couldn't build any momentum in the first half of those games. To compound matters, it was outrebounded in its first five games of the season before outrebounding the Braves 50-20.
"When we came back to practice, we were not going to let anything in Maui carry over except the motivation part where we need to get better, work hard, and get open looks," Ray said.
After giving up a layup six seconds into the game, MSU went on a 13-0 run to take the lead for good. Alcorn State didn't reach double figures until the 7-minute, 5-second mark of the first half.
"I guess we were nervous or we got timid," Alcorn State coach Luther Riley said. "We've played in bigger arenas against top 15 teams, and I just don't understand it. We were in disarray from the beginning."
Freshmen Craig Sword and Fred Thomas led the Bulldogs with 14 points apiece. Sword became the fourth Bulldog to lead MSU in scoring this season, while setting a new career high. Sword also added four rebounds, two assists and five steals in 34 minutes.
Riley recruited Thomas, a three-star athlete from Jim Hill High School in Jackson, after MSU hired Ray to replace Rick Stansbury in April. Riley was familiar with Thomas because he worked as the boys basketball coach at Provine High School in Jackson before taking the job at Alcorn State.
"I thought maybe he'd want a different opportunity after the move from coach Stansbury to coach Ray and thought, 'Why not give him a call or
two?" Riley said. "I think he made the right move for himself and the MSU program."
Sword had three steals at point guard position in the first half and made it extremely difficult for the Braves (2-5) to get into their dribble-drive motion offense.
"The best thing about Craig Sword tonight was the fact he played 19 minutes in that first half because Trivante (Bloodman) got into early foul trouble," Ray said. "We really couldn't substitute for him because we don't have another point guard on the team. For him to fight through that and play 19 minutes in that first half was huge for our team."
Sword also showed some creativity on offense, as he slashed into the lane for layups or floating jump shots or drew fouls to go to the free-throw line.
"I got a quick first step, so I can get around anybody," Sword said. "We have been practicing hard the last few days because we know had those bad loses in Hawaii."
Rebounding has been a point of emphasis for MSU following the Maui Invitational. MSU responded Tuesday with a huge advantage in that area thanks in part to the addition of freshman center Gavin Ware and junior guard Tyson Cunningham to the starting lineup.
Ware, who is from Starkville High, had seven points a game- and career-high 12 rebounds. The 6-foot-9 post player had six early points to ignite the run that helped MSU pull away. The Bulldogs capitalized on the Braves' inability to defend Ware, even though Riley said after the game that his team had worked in practice on double-teaming Ware.
"I don't think it's more about doubling, but it was about getting good seals," Ray said. "Gavin fights for seals and then you don't have to worry about double teams. For the most part, all he had to do was go up with the basketball and execute his angle."
Cunningham, a Columbus High product who two years ago was a practice player for the MSU women's program, earned his first career start and had three points and six rebounds (five offensive).
The game marked the first time a walk-on started for MSU since Jarvis Varnando's senior season. The NCAA's all-time leader in blocked shots was a walk-on after he return for his final season of eligibility.
The Braves were 15 of 53 from the field (28.3 percent). Leading scorer LeAntwan Luckett was held to 4-for-13 from the field in 31 minutes.
"They pretty much did (guard) well," Luckett said. "I tried to execute plays and still try to do what I do, make shots but I think I took like only one wide open shot all game."
MSU's next challenge will come at 11 a.m. Saturday (ESPNU) when it plays at Providence College in the SEC/Big East Challenge.