Guard Fred Thomas deflected a last-chance Loyola shot to seal Mississippi State’s Sunday win. Thomas could have made things much easier on the home team with a couple of free throw opportunities and the one-point lead at 0:26 of overtime. Both were missed and the Ramblers had all sorts of opportunities to go for the win.
Instead sophomore Thomas foiled all such plans. First his tight defense on intended Loyola shooter Milton Doyle resulted in a loose and tied-up ball. Possession still went to the visitors from Chicago but with only 2.5 ticks left. Doyle took the pass well out on top-right of the key in traffic and Thomas got a hand on his forced attempt. The carom came to guard Craig Sword.
The defensive play nicely offset a tough offensive day for Thomas. “Fred was mad,” Sword said. “So he said I’m going to be into (Doyle) because I know he’s going to get the ball.” To Coach Rick Ray the stop, or stops, showed more maturity from the talented if erratic sophomore, especially after missing the freebies.
“Fred would have been somewhere in a corner while his man was making a layup. But he’s shown some resolve.”
So did other Bulldogs, to cope with a Loyola club which came to Humphrey Coliseum looking for a win. The Ramblers spent most of the afternoon within a possession of State, one way or the other, and inside two minutes of the overtime were ahead 62-61. There were four lead changes just in the overtime period, and twenty for the full game.
Victory still went to the home team, and not just on some late-game defense. Sword and backup forward Rocquez Johnson were an almost-unstoppable Bulldog combo with 24 and 20 points respectively of combined 14-of-22 shooting.
“I guess you guys can see why we keep going to Montgomery, Alabama and Carver High School,” said Ray of the two prep teammates.
Sword defined overtime for the Dogs with a couple of explosive attacks for points. He made an amazing corner-to-basket dunk drive that amazed even his coach; then came down the lane for a layup, foul, and 64-62 lead at 1:42. “Coach told us be patient, we had to let the offense come to us. And they were playing off me so I drove it.”
Johnson’s scoring was spread over the whole game, as were his eleven rebounds. Coming off the bench in place of struggling C Gavin Ware, the forward was ideal to match against these Ramblers at each end. “When he plays with that much energy he’s a huge help,” Ray said. “When scores like that it’s an added bonus. He really did a good job forcing the issue in the paint.”
Ware, didn’t. He was shut out in scoring for 16 minutes with five rebounds. Starting forward Colin Borchert was 2-of-8 shooting, 1-of-6 at the arc; and didn’t get a single rebound as he was chasing quicker Ramblers around the perimeter. In fact, only six Bulldogs scored at all in the 45-minute affair.
So it was up to Johnson in relief and Sword to carry the club. “I thought I brought a lot of energy, me and Chicken (Sword),” Johnson said. “If (Gavin) didn’t show up somebody had to step it up.”
Another Dog who did step it up was sub-forward Tyson Cunningham. He only made two shots but both went for three points, and each stemmed Loyola momentum in the second half. One of his longballs actually began with a sheer-effort play all the way on the other baseline as Cunningham saved a ball going out of bounds. His blind flip went to a teammate and by the time Cunningham got to the other end Loyola had forgotten him, leaving the open look for three.
“Coach told me that was real energy change,” Cunningham said.
Loyola showed more first-half energy, leading most of the period and seven-straight minutes one stretch. They even led as much as 38-33 in the second half before Cunningham stepped up. With Sword and Johnson splitting eight points in a run the Bulldogs could have taken control. But Doyle stuck a tough three on a second-chance at 1:09 for a 56-56 tie that held, as both teams missed free throws and Sword’s long jumper before the buzzer was off.
Doyle, a freshman, led Loyola with 22 points on 7-of-13 shooting with a couple of treys. Guard Christian Thomas added 12 points and Devon Turk 10 more. Though the Bulldogs could have controlled things with better free throw accuracy, that was where it was won anyway; State was 17-of-28 on the stripe to 12-of-14 for the visitors.
Sunday’s game was the second by these schools celebrating their ‘Game of Change’ in the 1963 NCAA Tournament. Some Bulldogs or their surviving spouses from that historic Babe McCarthy ballclub returned to campus to be recognized, along with both retired radio legend Jack Cristil and a couple of Ramblers. The era-changing pre-game handshake was even reproduced on center court. Loyola of course won that game, played in East Lansing, Mich.; and last year’s Rambler team also won the first commemoration game, played in Chicago.
“It’s really good this game happened,” said Ray. “I think it’s a significant step in NCAA history. To see something like this, that is such a positive thing in regard to race relations and our University, is something that should be promoted and people should know.”
Now the Bulldogs (5-1) have a couple of days to get back into the late fall-semester cycle as well as prepare for the next home game. State hosts TCU on Thursday with a 6:00 tipoff at The Hump, playing their part this year in the SEC/Big XII challenge.