January 3, 2014 11:16:33 AM
Matthew Stevens - email@example.com
STARKVILLE -- Celebrating milestones isn't something the Mississippi State men's basketball program is used to.
MSU coach Rick Ray made sure to categorize his team's 10th win of the season -- a 77-63 victory against Maryland-Eastern Shore at Humphrey Coliseum -- as a historical marker.
"I thought this was a good win," Ray said. "Last year, we won out 10th game in March. To be able to do that in January is good for this team."
When asked in the postgame media conference if he thought getting to double-digit wins more than two months before last season was a sign of the progress, Ray acknowledged the gauntlet his squad will face in the Southeastern Conference.
"I hope so," Ray said. "But if we're sitting here with 10 victories or so two months from now, it won't mean as much will it?"
MSU (10-3) and No. 15 Kentucky will meet at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Rupp Arena. The SEC Network will televise the game locally.
MSU used its significant size advantage against UMES (2-10). The Hawks have lost 24 consecutive road games since a victory at Morgan State on Feb. 11, 2012, and 26 straight non-conference games away from home dating back to a victory Nov. 11, 2010, at Navy. MSU scored 44 points in the paint, as 6-foot-9 sophomore Gavin Ware feasted against 6-4 and 6-5 defenders.
"We really did a good job of getting the ball in the paint," MSU freshman guard IJ Ready said. "With Gavin and Roquez (Johnson), it was important we use our size advantage."
Ware had 21 points and a career-high 16 rebounds for his fifth double-double this season (seventh overall). Ware worked the high-low action to perfection with senior Colin Borchert, who had a career-high 22 points.
UMES coach Frankie Allen used his sixth starting lineup in the past six games in an attempt to find the right combination from a roster with one player taller than 6-5. Kanakee Community College transfer KyRee Jones had a team-high 18 points for the Hawks. Jones is the son of UMES assistant coach Kevin Jones.
Ware said he used the Christmas break to work with MSU strength coach Richard Akins on his conditioning.
"We don't want to and can't go back to last year when I would get fatigued and tired all the time, so I wasn't helping the team as a big body," Ware said. "I have to be able to play at a high level for 30-35 minutes, and that's the goal now."
Ray said Ware's conditioning will be a factor because MSU will face bigger and stronger defenders near the hoop in league play.
"I don't think that necessarily was a original thought Gavin had but one he got from (members of the coaching staff)," Ray said. "Without a backup (center), Gavin's conditioning is always going to be a issue, but I thought he does a good job of addressing it when needed and using angles to seal his man in the high-low action tonight."
Ware and Borchert combined to play 60 minutes without committing a foul.
"Normally when a players would drive the baseline is when I'd pick up a couple cheap fouls, but I think I did a better job tonight of sealing that off in time so I didn't draw that early foul," Ware said. "A game like this boosts our confidence as we head into Southeastern Conference."
Foul problems have contributed to Ware's struggles, but the Starkville High product had a double-double nine minutes into the game. Opposing defenses also have used packed-in zones to limit Ware's post touches, but UMES couldn't do that with such a small lineup.
"He's 6-foot-9, 270 pounds, so once he gets a body on somebody he's hard to miss as a big target," Ready said. "He's been posting up real tall and well lately, so we have to get it to him."
MSU used a 9-0 run to stretch its the lead to 45-27 in the second half. A 3-pointer by Fred Thomas capped that run with 14 minutes, 48 seconds remaining. The Bulldogs led by 19 a couple of minutes later. UMES cut the lead to 10 with seven-straight points, and later got within nine twice after a flurry of late 3-pointers.
"It's just hard for young men to keep pressing and doing what they're supposed to be doing with a 19-point lead, and I think that's indicative of all college basketball right now," Ray said. "My biggest concern coming off Christmas break was whether we would have a flavor for competition. I told them before the game started that would be an issue, and we didn't have that flavor."
Still, the victory gives MSU's eight active scholarship players reason for hope as the team enters SEC action.
"It shows how far we have come as a team and how much growth we have had," Borchert said. "Coach Ray is coaching us hard and putting us in a position. We have come out and been ready for the challenges. We are looking forward to getting started in conference play."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.