December 18, 2013 7:50:20 PM
STARKVILLE -- Thanks to his wife's chocolate chip cookies, Rick Ray now has two players with nicknames related to food.
The Mississippi State men's basketball coach got a revised and energetic effort Tuesday night and his new starting small forward attributed to the change to skills of the coach's wife, Breyana, in the kitchen.
"Ms. Ray baked some of the best chocolate chip cookies I've had in a long time," Applewhite said.
Ray's solution was immediate and simple: more baking.
"I guess I'll have get my wife to work on that for upcoming games," Ray said after the 78-65 victory over Florida A&M Tuesday.
Ray referred to Applewhite, who has started the last two games in place of sophomore guard Fred Thomas, as the cookie monster because of the energy and effort he's provided since returning from a severe knee injury.
In the victory over Florida A&M, Applewhite earned his first career double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds while sometimes playing out of position at the power forward spot.
Against mid-major competition Applewhite's energy level and effort on both ends more than effectively gave MSU one of its best 20-minute starts in the ninth games of 2013-14 season. For MSU, 42 points was the second most points in a first half this season. The halftime advantage was the season's largest.
"I thought we had a lot of energy in the first half," MSU head coach Rick 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 alone, we had 13 buckets and nine assists on those, so that is what we want to do on the offensive end."
Applewhite has been able to translate his athleticism and basketball intelligence into a vital swing position at the power forward and small forward positions to create matchup problems for taller and more physical opposing players.
"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 anyway."
Applewhite's energy and the scoring punch of sophomore guard Craig Sword will look to counter the four starters from last season's Cinderella story of Florida Gulf Coast tonight. FGCU (5-5) quickly became known around the nation as 'Dunk City' after a memorable run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament last season, becoming the first 15-seed to ever accomplish the feat.
After Andy Enfield left FGCU to take the job at Southern California, Joe Dooley immediately was hired after his run as a assistant at Kansas to continue the Eagles run with the same core of players.
FGCU junior Brett Comer has been named to the watch list of candidates for the 2014 Bob Cousy Collegiate Point Guard of the Year Award, as announced by Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame officials. Comer, who became a national household name last March for throwing those alley-lop dunks during the NCAA Tournament. Comer is currently averaging 14.1 points and 5.7 assists per game and is one of three players averaging double figure scoring.
Tonight's game will be shown on CSS at 8 p.m. and represents FGCU's sixth regional or national TV appearance of the year already. Tickets are $5 and MSU will be celebrating the holidays with a visit from Santa Clause for the fans. For the players, it also appears Mrs. Ray's oven will be working overtime for its new cookie monster in Applewhite and rest of a MSU roster looking to go to 8-2 in non-conference play before it heads to Las Vegas for a tournament hosted by UNLV.
"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 right now. We are excited about the new year because it is a new start for us."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.