Mississippi State was able to win its last two contests by the slimmest of margins.
The Bulldogs rallied for a 58-56 victory over Jackson State Wednesday and claimed a 65-64 overtime win against Loyola Sunday to improve to 5-1 on the year. It is the best start under second year coach Rick Ray.
“Frankly, I don’t think we would have won those games down the stretch like we did last year because of our inexperience and lack of depth,” Ray said. “We probably would have found a way to lose those games. You don’t want to be in those situations but the most important thing is when you are in those situations that you have success. I think that gives our guys confidence, no matter who the opponent is, that we make plays down the stretch and we’ve had some guys step up and make big plays for us.”
Sophomore shooting guard Craig Sword played a vital role in both of those wins. Sword averaged 18 points and five rebounds in those contests and scored the winning baskets in each. He was held scoreless in the first half against Jackson State but responded with 12 in the second. Sword scored 24 points, one shy of his career high, against Loyola and poured in five of MSU’s nine points in overtime.
For his efforts, Sword was named SEC Co-Player of the Week sharing the honor with Florida’s Casey Prather.
“I think Chicken was phenomenal for us,” Ray said. “I don’t think he played particularly well in the first half against Jackson State as a by product of being in foul trouble. I think Chicken is instant offense in transition and is really hard to deal with because of his explosiveness. With the new rules, they’re almost going to have to foul him in order to keep him out of the paint.
“The second thing is, he’s gotten better. Last year it was either going to be a spectacular play for Chicken or it was going to be a turnover. Now he’s grown and matured to the point that he’s making spectacular plays without turning the ball over as much.”
Ray also received a strong effort from junior forward Roquez Johnson on Sunday. Johnson recorded his first career double-double with a career-high 20 points and 11 rebounds off the bench against Loyola.
“The first thing that stands out about Roquez is his energy level,” Ray said. “When he’s playing with that energy level and playing that hard, he’s going to make a lot of plays on the ball. When he’s making plays on the ball he’s got a chance to score because he’s such an active kid. He’s finishing better around the rim this year and is making his free throws.”
All five of the Bulldogs victories have come in the friendly confines of Humphrey Coliseum this season with their lone loss coming at Utah State, 87-68.
Ray likes the fact his squad is off to a strong start but realizes there is still plenty of room for improvement as well.
“We’ve still got a ways to go obviously but I like the fact that we’ve reduced the turnovers,” Ray said. “We still need to become a better rebounding team and the thing I’m still concerned about is our defensive effort.”
State will be tested Thursday night hosting TCU in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge. The Horned Frogs are 4-3 under former LSU coach Trent Johnson.
TCU is returning from the Great Alaskan Shootout last week going 2-1 with wins over Alaska-Anchorage and Tulsa before falling to Harvard.
Thursday will also be the Bulldogs first appearance on TV this season airing on ESPNU with a 6:02 p.m. tipoff time.
“We get a chance to go out and prove ourselves against BCS talent against TCU here at home in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge,” Ray said. “We failed our first test against quality competition when we played at Utah State so we get a chance to go out and see what we really are as a basketball team.”
Thursday could see the return of Mississippi State freshman point guard IJ Ready. Ready has missed the last four games due to a hamstring injury but practiced in 5-on-5 situations on Tuesday.
Ray wants to see how Ready responds after the workout but has not ruled him out against TCU.