January 17, 2011 8:12:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- The Mississippi State men''s basketball team finally had a chance to exhale.
The Bulldogs hadn''t found too many positives written about them in the past month in the wake of off-the-court issues, player transfers, and a slew of blowout losses.
On Sunday, the Bulldogs were laughing, smiling, and throwing alley-oops to one another in an 85-66 wipeout of Auburn.
The 500th game at Humphrey Coliseum was a fitting celebration of two weeks of intense practices to help players adapt to the full-time services of Renardo Sidney and Dee Bost.
After dropping five of six, the Bulldogs (10-7, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) won their second-straight game in a rout of the Tigers (7-10, 0-3).
"It''s been a while since we''ve had this big of a win by this margin," MSU guard Ravern Johnson said. "It feels good to know everything is starting to click after everything that''s been going on."
Johnson (game-high 21 points) found the win especially sweet. It was his second-highest point total since scoring 26 against St. Mary''s on Dec. 29.
Johnson was 8 of 15 from the floor, his first time shooting 50 percent or better since going 4 of 8 against Virginia Tech on Dec. 18.
Johnson had been mired in a scoring slump since MSU departed for its two-week road swing to the Bahamas and Hawaii. The senior swingman had made just 28 of 96 shots and 11 of 46 from 3-point range.
On Sunday, Johnson had a trio of alley-oops and was more active going toward the basket. Just two of Johnson''s baskets were 3-pointers. He said he spent extra time this week working on his shot, which he said felt out of rhythm.
"It was just basically me trying to stay positive," Johnson said. "Coach (Rick Stansbury) was telling me to shoot it until you get back in rhythm, and that''s basically what I''ve been trying to do. Hopefully, every thing''s back on track."
Johnson''s production was a welcome sight for the Bulldogs, who Thursday against the University of Mississippi leaned heavily on 49 combined points from Bost and Sidney.
Against Auburn, Bost and Sidney combined for 24 points and made just eight shots.
Johnson''s ability to rediscover his touch helped the Bulldogs'' cause, as did 11 points from Riley Benock and 10 from by Jalen Steele.
Steele, who came off the bench, recorded his second-highest point total of the season against the team he had signed in the spring to join. He scored all of his points in the second half, including nine in a two-minute stretch.
Steele helped MSU register 22 bench points against the Tigers. The Bulldogs had only two against the Rebels.
"I always felt good because Mississippi State had seniors, and I could learn from them," said Steele, who was released from his letter of intent after Auburn fired coach Jeff Lebo and hired Tony Barbee. "Auburn, coaches were new, players were new. I had to come somewhere that already had a system built in."
Auburn dropped its third in a row after winning four straight. The Tigers continued their run as the lowest-scoring team in the SEC, and were to 35.8 percent shooting and made just 11 of 24 free throws.
"Offensively, we''re challenged," Barbee said. "It''s a broken record, but I keep saying it over and over. We have trouble shooting it. We have trouble making layups. We have trouble throwing it to the post and getting any production. You can''t keep putting yourself behind the eight ball with a lack of offense against such good teams. But we are what we are."
Despite their stagnant offense, the Tigers rallied midway through the second half and cut MSU''s lead to 53-41 following a 3-pointer from Earnest Ross.
MSU responded with a 15-2 run and held Auburn at bay until the final whistle.
"Because of our offense, we had to stay with the scrambling defense we were in," Barbee said. "It worked for a while and then they took advantage of some of our miscues in the press. That''s what good teams and good players do."
MSU will return to the court Sunday at Georgia for the first of three games in eight days. After facing Georgia, MSU will play host to Vanderbilt and Florida.
Bost hopes the Bulldogs make the most of their practice time.
"Games are funner than practice, but we need every practice so we can better," he said. "It''s different for us because we''re still trying to get our chemistry and rhythm down."
NOTE: MSU is 362-138 at Humphrey Coliseum, which was first used in December 1975.
2. Harris, Heritage Academy will count on seniors to lead way HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS
3. Howland likes MSU's non-conference schedule COLLEGE SPORTS
4. Central Academy hopes to contend for state title HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS
5. Walters column: Prep football season coming closer LOCAL COLUMNS