The Bulldog frontcourt did indeed go lots of minutes, 80 of them combined, without once drawing a whistle. This wouldn’t have mattered if the trio were playing passively. They weren’t. Center Ware and forwards Colin Borchert and Rocquez Johnson combined for 51 Mississippi State points and 30 rebounds, completely overpowering the visiting Hawks.
Ware set the pace, and darned nearly came up with a 20/20 performance. He finished with 21 points and 16 rebounds, having already reached double/double status before halftime. Of his 14 shots, ten went down. All gameplans should work so well for Coach Rick Ray.
“The emphasis was getting the ball into the post-feed, because they were susceptible to it,” said Ray. Not just susceptible but nigh-defenseless as Ware was more than any two overmatched Hawks could handle. Point guard I.J. Ready got most of his six assists feeding the post-man.
“I mean he’s 6-10, 270, I think it was pretty easy for us to get it to him tonight,” Ready said. “He was posting up really hard. Once he gets a body on somebody he’s a big target and it’s hard to miss him.”
It wasn’t a one-Dog show though. Borchert actually came out the scoring leader with 22 points, 20 of them in the second half. The senior forward did stick a pair of treys but as the game developed he too had his way around the rim making five of eight shorter shots. Borchert even turned point guard at times in a high-low set, drawing a defender and flipping over him to Ware for automatic baskets.
Dominating the baseline was important not just to take advantage of matchups. The combined efforts there allowed State to win despite an off-night by guard Craig Sword. The team’s offensive leader took only three shots all evening for just three points, by far his lowest output.
Whatever perimeter-scoring slack was picked up by Ready with seven points and guard Fred Thomas with ten more.
Maryland-Eastern Shore took an entirely-opposite approach. They are a perimeter-oriented offense in the first place but against State’s bigger bodies the Hawks relied almost entirely on jumpers. Long ones, as 29 of their 63 shots came from behind the arc. Eight of those did drop but that was almost entirely in the second half when the home team was in control.
Though, had the Hawks done any better than 1-of-13 on trey tries in the first half, it might have been a different sort of game. Because State was going to take its chances allowing lots of long shots. “It’s not that we want them to take three points,” Ready said. “We just didn’t want them in the paint to, keep our bigs out of foul trouble.” Which obviously worked out well with the whistlers.
Mississippi State’s start wasn’t all that strong as some of Ware’s and Borchert’s inside tries rimmed awry. The Hawks were able to come up with some inside openings and lead 10-8 at 11:18. It was still a two-point margin, now favoring State, by 7:51 when Ware went to work. He scored four-straight baskets in three minutes, with Ready draining a trey as UMES sagged even closer inside.
But a 29-20 intermission margin wasn’t good enough for Ray. Nor was how his team played the first half. “He said we didn’t even want to be out there,” Borchert said. “So we came out halftime and had intensity.”
They did, pushing out to a 48-29 lead by 13:25 with 13 combined points from Ware and Borchert. Building a healthy lead proved important because finally Hawk longballs began falling. Fortunately they came too late for a serious threat as the lead never fell below nine points.
“Mississippi State just played a lot bigger,” said UMES Coach Frankie Allen. “The stat that comes out is rebounding (43-29 favor of the Bulldogs). Even though we made a little bit of a run late when you dig a hole like that it’s hard to come back.”
Guards Kyree Jones and Isaac Smith had 18 and 15 points for the Hawks, though Jones was 4-of-12 at the arc and his team 8-of-29. The Bulldogs were actually better on percentage there, 6-of-15. The size mismatch was most measured at the foul line, where State was 13-of-18 compared to just four chances and three makes for UMES. The Hawks left 2-10.
Mississippi State finished the pre-conference schedule 10-3, and with as many victories already as Ray’s first Bulldog team achieved all last season. “I thought this is a good win for us, the fact we were able to get to the milestone of our tenth win in January,” Ray said. “We didn’t win our tenth game until March last year.”
The Bulldogs can use all the momentum they can muster as the schedule transitions. Not only is State about to begin SEC season, but they do so on the road and at Kentucky. At least Ray’s team has most of a week to prepare for next Wednesday’s 7:00ct game in Rupp Arena. Kentucky is 10-3 and doesn’t play until next week either.
Following the game Ray said he does not expect any additions to the roster soon, after losing Dre Applewhite over the weekend. The sophomore forward made the odd decision to transfer mid-year over playing time, though he had been getting starts.
This still won’t coax Ray into activating now-eligible forward Travis Daniels for the spring semester schedule. Ray has said before he wants to preserve two full seasons of eligibility for the juco transfer. Also, for now there has been no discussion with the football office about having use of freshman wide receiver and prep hoops standout De’Runnya Wilson, now that the Bulldogs have ended their season with a Liberty Bowl victory. It would require Coach Dan Mullen’s approval to let the budding star wideout skip January and February strength work in advance of spring football.