Sword scored 22 points, and made what seemed like every crucial shot, to make Mississippi State’s trip to Tupelo a success. The Bulldogs re-started their season after a week’s break for final exams with a win and are 6-2. Southeastern Louisiana left 3-6. The victory was State’s 16th-consecutive since the 1997-98 season in these off-campus ‘home’ games.
But that streak would have been snapped without Sword. “When it came down to the end, Coach was like come off a ball screen and make a play.” He did, even when not screened for, hitting both aggressive drives at the goal and wide-open treys against a Lions defense which had no antidote. Sword made 9-of-11 shots and both his three-point attempts.
In the process Sword topped 20 points for the third-straight game, something last done by a Dog in 2011 (Arnett Moultrie). “Chicken is just playing phenomenal, the numbers he’s putting up,” Coach Rick Ray said. “I think he’s shooting over 80% from the field and that’s unbelievable for a guard.”
The Lions became believers, as Sword was the one Bulldog they couldn’t cope with. Everyone else was in single-digits, with center Gavin Ware and forward Colin Borchert scoring nine points apiece. But they made their best contributions on the other end with three combined blocks and 13 rebounds. They had to step up in their own aspects too because starting forward Rocquez Johnson was lost with a knee injury after just ten minutes, leaving Mississippi State not just short-handed but short, period.
Southeastern Louisiana also had one double-digit scorer, and forward Antonnio Benton out-did Sword with his 26 points and eight rebounds. He also played the entire game without a break. His supporting cast wasn’t as strong though and when everything was in the balance Bulldog defense forced others into heaving the shots. Which mostly missed.
After a loss to TCU, Ray talked of lineup moves to get a better starting squad on court for tipoffs. The group he came up with replaced Borchert with Johnson at big forward, and big guard Dre Applewhite took Fred Thomas’ place. Freshman I.J. Ready got his first start at point guard too.
But the changes weren’t about offense; Ray had been seeking a better defensive opening from the Dogs. This bunch delivered that. “I thought Rocquez starting off the game provided us with a lot of energy,” Ray said. “We started off getting 11 of 12 stops.” In that stretch the Lions had five turnovers and four missed trey-tries as State forced them to play from long-distance.
“I was trying to keep them off the three-point line, so I think we did a good job defending,” Thomas said.
Having built a 12-2 lead though, the Bulldogs lost focus after Southeastern finally got a longball to fall. Then at 8:11 Johnson went down and out. Ray thought his team got caught-up in trying to match treys for a while, without success, and the result was the Lions taking their first lead at 1:31 on a threeball from Onochie Ochie. Their one-point margin at halftime reached 42-36 at 17:45.
With the Dogs still at a deficit five minutes into the second period, Sword just took charge. “I got in foul trouble and couldn’t close the first half like I wanted to. So I played hard the second half.” The big guard rolled in a layup off Trivante Bloodman’s inbounds pass, stole the ball back on defense and scored it for a tied game; and in transition blew down the lane for a looping banker and 50-48 lead.
Southeastern wouldn’t lead again but did manage a couple of tied tallies, last at 8:14. State called a timeout to set up a screened play for Sword that worked for the tough layup, foul, and made free throw. For good measure he stuck a corner-trey at 6:55 that really dictated terms for the rest of the evening. For good measure when two Lions came out to trap him Sword was able to bounce-feed Ware for an uncontested dunk.
The Lions had a last chance with a 63-62 score and 2:02 remaining. Guess Who was able to foil their hopes, after Ray called a timeout so Sword could catch some breath. He took the inbounds, attacked on the baseline and scored it. The rest of MSU’s points came on Thomas and Applewhite free throws as Southeastern missed a series of heaves from three-point range.
It was that brief first-half flurry at the arc that Ray thought rattled his team for a while. “But at the end of the day they were 6-of-24, and only went to the free throw line eight times.” The Bulldogs made 28 such trips, and had they converted more than 15 of them the outcome could have been much more comfortable.
Regardless of margin, “This is a good win for us,” said Ray.
The Bulldogs head back home for a few days of no games, but hardly days-off. With school done for the semester Ray has a series of two-a-day sessions planned, the early ones to address some specific issues. “Some of the problems are fixable, so we’ll bring them in twice a day. We’ll shoot free throws in the morning and then practice, and the next day we’ll shoot jumpshots in the morning and then practice.”
The extra work matters because Mississippi State will get really busy again, hosting two games in three days. Florida A&M is in Humphrey Coliseum at 7:00 Tuesday, then Florida Gulf Coast at 8:00 Thursday. After that the Dogs fly west for a pair of games in the Las Vegas Classic.