Thomas scored 17 points and paced five Bulldogs in double-digits as Mississippi State pulled away to a 78-55 victory over Kennesaw State. The Dogs are off to their first 2-0 start since fall 2010, while the Owls left 1-4.
Playing in an unsanctioned summer game cost sophomore guard Thomas an opening-night suspension, as he watched his teammates beat Prairie View A&M. He might not have called the wait worth it, but Thomas did turn in a good show to begin his second season.
“I felt pretty good about the first game of the season. I got involved with the team offensively and defensively.” The offense took a few moments to get going; Thomas missed his first two outside attemps and another couple of shorter shots.
When he found the range, though, he was able to rip off a pair of treys and take things from there…with a little unofficial coaching from backcourt cohort Craig Sword. “He told me to keep shooting, don’t worry about it. I went on to the next play, I felt if I got open again I’d hit another one.” He did, making four treys to offset overall 6-of-14 shooting. In fact Thomas was more accurate at the arc than inside it.
Teammates made up for him anyway as Mississippi State was 20-of-37 on two-point attempts. Forward Colin Borchert had a fine mix of both, hitting three long shots and others inside for 15 points while Sword added 13. The double-digit Dogs included a pair of substitutes, too, as guard Trivante Bloodman scored ten of his total 11 points in the second half; while forward Rocquez Johnson scored ten.
Center Gavin Ware missed a double-double with nine points and ten rebounds. It wasn’t the big Dog’s fault though, as Coach Rick Ray noted. “We have to do a better job getting Gavin touches, he was 4-of-4 from the floor.”
That was a minor irritation to the second year State coach. More serious was a somewhat sluggish start that had the Bulldogs trailing for as much of the first ten minutes as leading. Kennesaw State was the aggressor early and this didn’t set well with Ray.
I think they started off 8-of-10 field goals, and I just didn’t think we had the energy we’d come in and grind. Our guys saw the name and the record and thought add water, stir, and blowout win.” The Owls, both taller in most starting positions and athletic all through their lineup, were able to get good shots and set a faster pace on State’s floor.
Fortunately Borchert steadied his squad down by stepping outside for shots that kept things close. Then it was Thomas’ turn to heat up, hitting a trey at 9:04 to tie the game up. He added threeballs at 6:57 and 3:45 to build multi-possession leads and had all Dogs made a few more free shots the halftime margin would have been better than 35-31.
“You know Coach Ray, he wore us out!” said Sword of halftime. “He said we’d underestimated them early, so we had to come out and pick up the tempo.”
They did, beginning with Borchert’s trey to open the last half. Defense though was the difference as the Owls had five turnovers in the first four-plus minutes and didn’t make a shot until 16:19. It was still a four-point game when Borchert struck for another three that began a 10-2 Bulldog run. Bloodman was the sparkplug, taking over when starting point guard I.J. Ready went down after throwing an outlet pass. Ready was helped to the locker room while Bloodman was shooting and making free throws.
Ware powered for consecutive buckets on the goal’s right side that drew in defense so Sword could make it a 61-47 difference with his longball. The Owls got no closer than 11 points at 6:15 and only scored three points the rest of the evening. Their cause wasn’t helped by both starting big men fouling out only 13 seconds apart. Guard Yonel Brown led Kennesaw State with 15 points and seven assists, none of his teammates making double-figures.
The 78 points would have matched the third-best total scored by the Bulldogs all last season. Ray was even able to put redshirt freshman guard Jacoby Davis on the court, his first playing time at State after two knee surgeries as a true rookie. Davis had been cleared for play only this day, in fact. Ray did not have an update on Ready’s injury immediately after the game.
The coach was still frustrated about the first half when he saw the team get caught-up with offense against the various Owl zones and matchups, and not focusing on defense. “It doesn’t matter if you’re getting stops. In the second half we got stops and were able to get out in transition opportunities and attack.”
“I think we played great defense the second half,” Ray said. “We were kind of slow but Coach told us we had to pick it up defensively.”
Mississippi State completes an opening three-game homestand Tuesday by hosting Mississippi Valley State with a 7:00 tip.