December 18, 2013 9:30:33 AM
Matthew Stevens - email@example.com
STARKVILLE -- Tuesday night was the beginning of perception demolition at Humphrey Coliseum.
Prior to a 78-65 victory against Florida A&M, the Mississippi State men's basketball team frustrated coach Rick Ray with its inability to do fundamental things. But reclamation commenced Tuesday, as MSU made free throws, moved the ball on offense, and created turnovers on defense.
"I thought we had a lot of energy in the first half," Ray said. "Dre Applewhite really provided us the energy that we need to have. We also got to the free throw line. In the first half, we had 13 buckets and nine assists on those, so that is what we want to do on the offensive end."
MSU (7-2) entered the game shooting 61.1 percent from the free throw line. However, with no classes to attend this week, the Bulldogs spent extra time in the Mize Pavilion practice facility working on their shooting. The diligence paid off, as MSU was 33 of 45 (73.3 percent) from the free throw line.
"I shot 100 (Monday) and 50 this afternoon before the game," MSU sophomore guard Craig Sword said. "Coach told us we're going to have to make our free throws because of the way we drive to the basket. We can't leave points out there like that."
Sword, who was shooting 56.8 percent from the free throw line this season, was 10 of 12, which allowed him to feel more confident slashing to the basket. The game against Florida A&M (2-8) was the first time in the past four Sword didn't reach the 20-point total, but he still scored a team-high 16.
Applewhite provided a productive complement. In his third start of the season, the 6-foot-5 redshirt freshman guard from Memphis, Tenn., who sometimes plays out of position at the power forward spot in MSU's small lineup, earned his first career double-double with 14 points and 11 assists. Like Sword, half of Applewhite's production came at the free throw line, where he was 7 of 11.
The last time MSU made at least 31 free throws in a game was Jan. 15, 2005, in a 80-55 home victory against Arkansas.
"We have shot a lot of free throws in practice," Applewhite said. "(Craig Sword) and I have big bodies, so we got to find a way to get to the line."
In the first half, MSU showed more energy and enthusiasm. As a result, it had 13 assists on its first 16 field goals. The Bulldogs had success in Ray's motion offense by moving the basketball from side to side to get quality shots.
"It was real confusing for us to understand what defense they were in at times, but, at the end, it really didn't matter," Sword said. "We have to focus on what we're doing on offense because most times it's not important what defense we're looking at if we listen to our coaches."
The Bulldogs pushed the lead to 36-20 on a Sword layup off a steal by point guard IJ Ready with 1 minute, 50 seconds left in the first half. MSU is averaging nine steals a game, which is helping it play at a faster tempo.
"We really feel like our defense can lead to our offense quickly," Applewhite said. "A lot of times we can get a layup before the defense even sets up, and that's what the way we like to play."
MSU's defense also fueled the offense. The Bulldogs had 12 steals, which enabled them to get out on odd-man rushes. In the first half, MSU had five steals, including a pair by Colin Borchert and Applewhite, and led 42-27 at halftime. The 42 points was the team's second most in a first half this season. The 15-point margin also was the team's largest halftime advantage.
D'Andre Bullard led FAMU with 14 points, but the Bulldogs' man-to-man defense held the Rattlers, who entered the game 300th in the nation in field goal percentage, to 34.2 percent from the field.
"We had a rough go in the non-conference last season," MSU senior guard Tyson Cunningham said, "so it is good to have some momentum. We are excited about the New Year because it is a new start."
Cunningham's words signify a possible epiphany for a team that will play four games in a six-day stretch before Christmas. The next test will come at 8 p.m. Thursday when MSU plays host to 2013 NCAA tournament participant Florida Gulf Coast (5-5).
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.