November 10, 2013 1:27:20 AM
Scott Walters - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- The Mississippi State men's basketball team went down low Friday night to win its season opener.
Behind the solid 1-2 punch of Gavin Ware and Roquez Johnson, MSU had all of the answers in the paint, built an early lead, and cruised to a 71-56 victory against Prairie View A&M at the Humphrey Coliseum.
Ware posted his third career double-double with 15 points and a career-high 15 rebounds. Johnson added 11 points. Despite a couple of gimmes rolling off the iron, the duo still went 11 of 19 from the field.
"We were trying to create a presence underneath," Ware said. "We feel like if we can control things down low it makes us a much better offensive team. We had some good transition (opportunities) early, and that really got us going."
MSU looked like a team with several new faces on the roster. Dre Applewhite and IJ Ready made their first career starts. Applewhite played in place of Fred Thomas, who missed the game due to an NCAA one-suspension for playing in unsanctioned All-Star charity event in the summer.
Applewhite, a redshirt freshman who missed last season with a knee injury, learned about his assignment just prior to tip.
"There was no time to nervous. I found out about four minutes from tip," Applewhite said. "It felt good to get to play a game again because it had been a while."
Applewhite started the game with a 3-pointer. Ware followed with layup, and Johnson scored to cap an 11-2 run that made it 18-6. Prairie View A&M cut the deficit to five points only to see MSU's defensive pressure push the lead back to 38-28 at halftime.
"We did a lot of things well for the first game," MSU coach Rick Ray said. "You don't like the 21 turnovers. They beat us in transition too many times, but you saw a lot of good things You saw a team that made plays there at the end to win a game."
The Bulldogs fared well in their initial challenge with the tighter officiating standards. MSU only dressed eight players but was only whistled for 19 fouls. Conversely, the Bulldogs spent better than 12 minutes in the game's final half in a bonus situation.
Ready, a freshman from Little Rock, Ark., helped direct the offense. He had 14 points, two assists, and three steals in 30 minutes, and gave the Bulldogs a true point guard, an item sorely missing off last year's 10-22 team.
"I had been waiting for this night since August," Ready said. "It was great to finally get out there and put into play what we had been practicing on this whole time. I really like the capabilities of this team. We have things to work on, but this is a good start. I am all about winning. I'm not worried about my numbers or anything like that. It is all about winning."
Despite being down 15 midway through the second half, the Panthers cut the deficit to 62-55 when the teams went into a media timeout with 3 minutes, 52 seconds remaining.
"Coach told us to forget about the score," Ware said. "Our job was to go out there and make some stops to win the game."
The Bulldogs did just that and answered with a 7-0 run in 67 seconds. A Colin Borchert block led to a Trivante Bloodman layup. A turnover led to a 3-pointer by Ready. He then followed with a steal and Borchert finished the run with a layup on a 2-on-1 fast-break situation.
"Last season, there was always a question of whether we would be able to finish games or not," Ray said, "so that ending right there was really good to see."
Applewhite had nine points and four assists in 25 minutes.
"We let our focus down on defense a couple of times, and we can't do that," Applewhite said. "We lost their 3-point shooter a couple of times, but we played with hard and we were all over the boards. Everybody went to the boards, so coach should be happy."
MSU held a 51-27 rebounding advantage. Johnson added seven rebounds to go with his 11 points.
Montrael Scott paced Prairie View with 15 points. Louis Munks added 13 points and Tre Hagood added 11 points.
MSU will play host to Kennesaw State at 7 p.m. Thursday.
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter