The host Bulldogs used an effective mix of defenses that all denied Florida Gulf Coast easy alleys to the basket, and stifled the aggressive Eagles. In fact, last year’s high-flying NCAA Tournament darlings couldn’t deliver a single dunk all evening as they fell to 5-6.
Mississippi State (8-2) did get a single dunk. Literally, just one, that by guard Craig Sword. But the Bulldogs weren’t looking to jam the ball nearly as much as jam-up the other team on defense. “Coach said they feed off their dunks, so we were really trying to come out and not let them have any dunks,” said guard I.J. Ready.
“This is a really good win for our ball club, against a quality opponent,” Coach Rick Ray said. “I thought it was our best defensive effort this year, and the best we’ve played since the Ole Miss and South Carolina games last year.”
The Dog-ged defense wasn’t obvious on the stat sheet. Florida Gulf Coast still shot 46% overall with three double-digit scorers. What mattered was that never in the evening did the Eagles get into their end-to-end sort of play. The longest FGC ‘runs’ were all just six-straight points as even during their own droughts the Dogs managed to maintain enough control of things in that direction.
“At all costs Coach said I’m playing 94 feet, all game,” point guard Ready said. “If it’s a break we try to get an easy score. The only time we tried to slow it down was on defense, we wanted to jam the ball.” The Eagles were disrupted to the point of committing 21 turnovers, and while State scored just 16 points off them the result was as desired either way.
And yes, Ray said; guarding the rim was directive #1. “Florida Gulf Coast is really lethal in transition and we made a point we can’t let those guys get in transition.” This meant containing 6-3 guard Brett Comer much as practical. Comer still got points, 15 of them on a 14.1 average. But he shot barely 50% in the process and had three turnovers.
Guard Bernard Thompson was held under his own 15.9 average with ten points on 4-of-10 shooting, but what stood out was his 2-of-7 frustrations at the arc. The Eagles, who came in shooting 34% on treys, were just 3-of-18 combined. But they had to keep trey-trying as a Bulldog almost always was between ball and bucket.
“The talk the whole game was defense,” Ready said. “Florida Gulf Coast is a great team so the talk was come in and play defense.”
Mississippi State’s offense wasn’t shabby either, 46% overall and a respectable—by this team’s standards—five made treys in 14 tries. Three threes were provided by guard Fred Thomas, a much-needed output for the struggling sophomore shooter.
I’ve been trying to build my confidence back up. Coach Ray showed me clips from last year to motivate me a little bit.” Thomas came off the bench for ten points, as did forward Rocquez Johnson who added a team-best eight rebounds. Guard Craig Sword again set the pace, this time with 17 points on 6-of-8 shooting, while Ready scored a dozen points with the other two treys. Center Gavin Ware added ten more points and six boards.
State’s tight defense had the Eagles throwing it up early and often. And while FGC did take a brief 8-7 lead at 14:41 as a longball by Thompson fell, the Bulldogs got back in front fast and stayed there by as much as a dozen. The lead was 40-28 five minutes into the last half when FGC made a third mini-run of six points.
Ware stemmed that one with a tough bucket at 13:51; then passed a defensive rebound to Ready for a relay upcourt that guard Andre Applewhite turned into a three-point play. The Bulldogs could have put this one away earlier, with a 15-point lead inside five minutes, but fouls started adding up and FGC got some hurried shots to fall. “At the end of the game we’re nobody taller than 6-4 out there,” Ray said.
Ready had the back-breaker though as with the shot clock expiring he threw in a three-pointer at 2:32 for a double-digits lead that lasted this time.
Both teams did a lot of zoning so offense at each end came down to individual creativity, as measured by just 14 combined assists against 44 baskets made. The Bulldogs didn’t block any shots (FGC had three) but playing straight-up also allowed the thin front line to last the whole game. “We didn’t foul as much the first half,” Ray said.
“I thought Mississippi State did a good job controlling the temp from the start to the finish,” Eagles Coach Joe Dooley said. “They got great contributions off the bench, and turned turnovers into points.”
Speaking of transition… With a couple of home wins in three days, the Bulldogs now take off westward with a morning flight. Mississippi State plays in the Las Vegas Classic, beginning Sunday with a 7:00ct game against South Florida. That contest is not televised. Monday’s game against either Nevada-Las Vegas or Santa Clara will air on CBSsportsnet.