January 13, 2014 11:13:06 AM
Matthew Stevens - email@example.com
STARKVILLE -- Rick Ray is getting used to Craig Sword contributing in other ways than scoring.
Following a victory against Maryland-Eastern Shore in which Sword attempted three shots, Ray said he wasn't comfortable with the Mississippi State men's basketball team's leading scorer not playing a big role in the team's offense.
But Ray and a crowd of 8,841 at Humphrey Coliseum watched Saturday as Sword showed he can impact a game even when he isn't shooting well. Sword didn't make a field goal in MSU's 76-72 victory against Ole Miss, but he still have 15 points, seven steals, five rebounds, and four assists in 34 minutes.
Despite going 0-for-7 from the field, Sword, a 6-foot-3 guard, had a career-high in steals and matched his season-high in rebounds. Sword also was 15 of 18 from the free throw line. He entered the game as a career 57-percent shooter from the free throw line. It was the sixth time this season he has reached double-digit free throw attempts in a game
"He's a guy who attacks the basket and everybody knows it, but now he's starting to make free throws," Ray said. "That's just so important as an addition to his best skill of driving."
Sword had to go back to his junior varsity experience at Carver High School in Montgomery, Ala., for the last time he didn't make a basket in a game. The sophomore, whose nickname is "Chicken," is 1 of 10 from the field in his last two games at home.
"Coach told us to attack the zone all game and you could see the holes in it more in the second half," Sword said. "When we attacked those spots in the second half is when we made that final run to win."
Sword has realized his ability to create off the dribble must translate into effective possessions and help the Bulldogs (11-4, 1-1 SEC) take good shots or get to the free throw line. In MSU's first two Southeastern Conference games, Sword has increased his free throw percentage more than 8 percent (55.7 to 64.3).
"It got to the point I couldn't get any shots up because they would foul me and send me to the line daring me to make free throws," Sword said.
The 6-foot-3 guard epitomizes MSU's offense. While he leads the team in scoring at 14.7 points per game and third on the team in field goal percentage (53.1), his strength is his willingness to fight for points. That fight helped MSU overcome a 22-for-58 shooting afternoon that prevented it from getting Ole Miss out of its 2-3 zone defense. The shooting effort included a 4-of-21 showing from 3-point range that dropped the team's season percentage to 29 percent, which is the worst in the SEC. MSU is 10th in the league in field goal percentage (45.1).
"Attacking the basket isn't a advantage we saw tonight, (but) it's the only way we have to compete against any teams because we don't make shots," Ray said. "We're not a good shooting team and have guys that are good off the bounce, so we can't settle for even open jump shots."
According to advanced statistical data provided by Ken Pomeroy, MSU is 293rd out of 351 Division I teams in offensive efficiency. The lack of outside shooting could lead to more scoring droughts this season, but that wasn't the case Saturday, as MSU was a season-high 28 of 42 from the free throw line after penetrating the gaps of the defense and getting fouled.
"What was I shooting before tonight, 50 percent from the foul line?" Sword said. "I've been shooting free throws in practice because I know that's going to be my bread and butter going forward."
Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said he became frustrated watching Sword constantly getting in the paint against a defense designed to prevent that from happening.
After Sword scored in double figures for the 13th time this season, Kennedy likely won't be the last coach to see Sword try to penetrate to give MSU a lift.
"We wanted them to make a hard field goal that was contested, and Craig Sword continues to drive by us, drive by us, drive by us," Kennedy said. "His 18 free throws may be a high of anybody I've ever coached against."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.