December 22, 2012 10:35:30 PM
Scott Walters - [email protected]
JACKSON -- Gavin Ware has the unique opportunity to play college basketball at his hometown university.
However, the former Starkville High School All-State performer decided to have his coming-out party two hours down the road.
Ware scored a career-high 22 points and grabbed a career-high 13 rebounds Saturday to lead the Mississippi State University men's basketball team to a 79-72 victory against the University of Central Arkansas before a crowd of 2,101 at Mississippi Coliseum.
"With Wendell (Lewis) down, I knew had to step up," said the 6-foot-9, 270-pound Ware, who made his fifth career start. "After my first couple of shots went down, I knew it could be this kind of night. My teammates were looking to me to be the man down low. I am glad we were able to get this win."
The Bulldogs lost Lewis, a senior center, last week in practice to what could be a season-ending knee injury. MSU coaches utilized the extra practice time after final examinations to make Ware the focal point of the offense.
"Gavin really responded the way we had hoped he would," said MSU first-year coach Rick Ray, who won his first game away from the Humphrey Coliseum. "As a true freshman, he is going through a lot, just like the other freshmen are. The jump from high school to junior college is great. The jump from high school to senior college is even greater.
"When you have the type of inside presence Gavin provided, it opens up other aspects of your offense."
MSU built an early lead midway through the first half. While UCA (4-5) hung tough, the Bears were never a threat. Thanks to eight second-half 3-pointers, UCA trimmed a nine-point halftime deficit to six in the second half but didn't get closer.
"We talked about togetherness before coming out to play this game," MSU junior Tyson Cunningham said. "We knew we had to work together to win the game. Even though we have had some ups and downs, we know we are all in this together. The more players we get involved, the better our chances."
MSU (4-6) put together its most complete offensive showing. The Bulldogs shot 48.1 percent from the field, held a plus-14 rebounding advantage, and placed five players in double figures for the first time this season.
"Each game is a significant step forward for us," Ray said. "Central Arkansas plays the type of game where you know you are going to get shots. Once Gavin went to work inside, that allowed us many more options on the offensive end."
Ware established his dominance early with a pair of dunks. Ray noted an early possession as key when Colin Borchert passed up a wide-open 3-pointer and found Ware open underneath on a ball reversal.
"We were taking too many 3s early in the year," Ray said. "We had some offensive possessions today where we showed some growth and maturity. You would like those kind of numbers every game because we are fixing to have to count on Gavin on the inside. However, the challenge is now ... How does he change his game after other teams see on tape what he is capable of doing?"
After missing its first nine 3-pointers, MSU hit four of the final six and finished the second half with 45 points. The Bulldogs broke away from the six-point advantage with a 12-2 run. Cunningham and Craig Sword each hit 3-pointers as the shot clock expired. Sword's lone trey came on an inbounds pass with two seconds left on the shot clock.
"The play was designed to go to Fred Thomas," Sword said. "The next thing I know I look up and the ball is headed my way. It happened so quickly. It was a relief that shot went down because I had been needing it."
Trivante Bloodman had a career-high 12 points, five rebounds, and two assists. Borchert added a career-high 11 points, while Cunningham also set a new career high with 10 points. Sword also had 10 points.
Jackson native Fred Thomas didn't enjoy his homecoming, hitting 1 of 9 shots from the field, but the former Jim Hill High standout had seven rebounds, as did Roquez Johnson.
Robert Crawford led UCA with 26 points, including a 7-of-14 performance from 3-point range.
MSU improved to 15-6 all-time at the Mississippi Coliseum with a 12th straight win. Typically, the Bulldogs play a designated home game away from campus the week prior to Christmas to allow fans in another area to come see the team play. Next season, the game is expected to go into a rotation, starting off at BancorpSouth Arena in Tupelo.
For Ware, it will be another opportunity to stake claim to another building. The return to Jackson proving much better than the last time Ware played there -- a 50-30 loss to Wayne County in the semifinal round of the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A state tournament. Ware had 10 points and 10 rebounds in his final high school game.
"I knew I had big shoes to fill (with Lewis being sidelined)," Ware said. "I tried to step my game up. This was a lot more fun than that last time I was here. That is for sure."
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter