It isn't that the coach want a return to last year's sort of SEC consistency. Rick Ray would rather…
And they left frustrated, having held double-digit leads midway of the second half. Trailing by ten with as many minutes remaining could have easily cracked home-club confidence against one of the better defensive teams around. For that matter just forcing overtime wasn't completely encouraging; a year ago in their first meeting as SEC cousins the Dogs and Aggies also went into extra-play at the Hump. Texas A&M won that one 54-49.
This second such time-around turned out far better for the home. With Ware setting the physical tone, Mississippi State caught up before regulation ran out and then dominated the bonus basketball. "We came out, played hard, and got a win at home," said guard Craig Sword, team scoring leader at 23 points.
And scoring, for that matter shooting, was very much on Coach Rick Ray's mind both before and after. "This is a good win for us, against a quality ball club. Texas A&M leads the SEC in field goal percentage and scoring defense. So for us to score 81 points and shoot almost 64% the second half speaks well for what our team did."
Well? It spoke volumes for how successfully and most time smartly the Bulldogs came at an Aggie defense which seemed an ideal matchup. Texas A&M already likes to guard inside the arc, and they knew State wasn't going to win from outside it. That part played out as the home team made three treys in 45 minutes.
The key though was Ray's team didn't settle for outside looks. In halfcourt their orders were to use the shot clock, keep working whatever lanes came open or get the ball to Ware; and when possible get transition going immediately. It worked.
"We were grinding the whole game," Sword said. "Coach told us it doesn't matter how many points we go down, keep working the ball inside. And get stops."
There were just enough of the latter to survive regulation. Even though A&M shot 62% in the second half, their total attempts were down and turnovers up due to Dog disruptions. And the war Ware spoke of showed at the end as Aggies let their frustrations, and particularly forced fouls, to show. Postman Kourtney Roberson fouled out at 1:18 of regulation, and do-it-all guard Alex Caruso got his fifth personal at 2:27 of overtime. Then after a double-technical on State's Fred Thomas and A&M's Jamal Jones, the latter was angry enough to draw another technical at 1:07.
The ensuing State free throws, by forward Colin Borchert, and maintained possession effectively sealed the outcome. Ware made sure of it, as Sword fed him for a throw-down at 1:03 for the last MSU points and an 81-70 margin. Ware had already muscled for a couple of shorter scores in OT around free throws off Caruso's fifth personal.
After a frustrating start to his day, Ware was 8-of-11 shooting and 6-of-8 at the stripe. He added ten rebounds for his sixth double-double this season. "I just felt I needed to be a guy that stepped up," Ware said. "Because they were going to step up also, but A&M had the smaller four/five men in. So I felt it was my time to ‘eat' as people said."
The Aggies in turn were devoured by the biggest Bulldog. "He's a big, strong, powerful guy and hard to move off the block," Coach Billy Kennedy said. "He finished around the basket the way he's supposed to do. And he made his free throws."
Sword was 7-of-11 with a made trey, and 8-of-13 at the stripe. His relentless attacks across the baseline or down the lane gave A&M defenders trouble, such as with the referees. The Aggies would draw 27 fouls to State's 16, and were out-scored 20 to 14 on free throws.
What made up for it all was a stretch of three-pointing that could have and likely should have earned a road win. The first half played out as both coaches expected, a repeat of last year's grueling, nigh-glacial pace with a lot of banging and not many fouls. A&M did ease ahead as much as seven points but couldn't really pull away.
Then when State got two unexpected treys, from Sword and Thomas, it was a 27-26 halftime Dog deficit. Ware had only four shots and seven points, but he also didn't have a foul to his name-line
The home team's crunch came when the Aggies, unable to get inside openings, fired from the arc and hit. Five treys in six minutes to be exact, and most of them coming after State had made something of a move to catch up. Still the Dogs stuck to Ray's orders to ‘massage' the clock, go inside and either score or get fouled. When the Aggies pulled in even tighter a few State jumpers dropped.
Texas A&M might have sealed it with a 67-65 lead as Sword's roller rimmed off. A&M's Tavario Miller rebounded but tried an outlet into traffic. Into Ware, specifically, who was already moving downcourt. "The five-man had the ball, so I told Colin let's try to trap him. All of a sudden the ball ended up in my hand, what am I going to do? So I decided to score it."
He did for a 67-67 tie. The Aggies had 24 seconds to set up a good last shot and wasted all but 1.9 of it before calling time. The resulting rushed attempt by Fitzgerald had no chance. In overtime Ware broke a 69-tie by rolling across the lane for a little flip and big go-ahead basket. He made it 73-69 by rebounding another Sword miss to be fouled for free throws that really put State in charge the rest of the way.
"He had a lot of opportunities in the first half he just didn't finish," Ray said of Ware. "I thought the second half he did a much better job finishing those opportunities he had at the rim."
Borchert had 14 points and Thomas 13. All but six Bulldog points came from the starting five, and State played without regular point guard IJ Ready who was benched by lingering symptoms of his Wednesday concussion. Jones led A&M with 24 points before being benched by the second technical, while Fitzgerald had 20 off the bench.
"Give Mississippi State a lot of credit," Kennedy said. "They made some tough plays down the stretch, and got to the free throw line. They just wore us out."
After their first league loss the Aggies have to bounce back quickly as their SEC schedule sends them to Kentucky on Tuesday. The Bulldogs get a Wednesday date with Auburn and an go for their third home win of the conference season.