By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – It was like old times for Ravern Johnson, and that was good news for a “new” Mississippi State team.
The senior guard, whose shot had abandoned him for a six-game stretch, found his stroke Sunday as the Bulldogs eviscerated a young Auburn team, 85-66, in the 500th game to be played at Humphrey Coliseum.
A crowd of 6,794 saw Johnson score a game-high 21 points – his seventh 20-point game of the season. He made 8 of 15 shots, including 2 of 6 from 3-point range.
“It’s a lot easier when you know the other guys are going to score and that you ain’t got to make every shot,” Johnson said.
Not surprisingly, Johnson’s re-emergence is coinciding with the Bulldogs’ assimilation into what’s starting to resemble an actual team.
With Dee Bost and Renardo Sidney on the court together for three straight games now, MSU (10-7, 2-1 SEC) is starting to find its groove. On Sunday, State jumped out to a 22-3 lead, was up by as many as 25 points, and never let Auburn (7-10, 0-3) get closer than a dozen.
The Bulldogs, who’ve won two in a row after being thumped by Alabama, looked as loose as they’ve been all season, the weight of a long December finally off their backs.
Coach Rick Stansbury has talked constantly about this being a “new” team.
“I’ve just had this team for two games, three games, so that’s where I’m at with this team,” he said. “I’ve seen this team gradually continue to get better.”
Bost had nine points and eight assists, many of them alley-oop lobs to Sidney and Johnson in the second half. Sidney scored 15 to go with six rebounds and three assists.
The play of those two made life easier for Johnson, who no longer has to be State’s primary scorer.
“He needed that game, to knock down shots and get his confidence back,” Bost said.
Riley Benock scored 11 points for MSU, which got good bench help from freshman Jalen Steele (11 points) and sophomore John Riek (four points, five rebounds, three blocks).
MSU was balanced from the beginning, with all five starters getting in the scoring column by the first media timeout. A season-high 11 different players scored for MSU, which shot 62 percent from the floor, including 41.2 percent (7 of 17) from 3-point range.
There was some sloppiness against Auburn’s press, as MSU committed 17 turnovers, a reminder that there is still much progress to be made.
The Bulldogs fought through those miscues and kept the pressure on defensively. Auburn shot just 25 percent in the first half and 35.8 percent for the game. It was just eight days earlier that the Tigers – who started three sophomores and two freshmen – were held to six points in the first half by LSU.
‘Trouble with shots’
Earnest Ross led Auburn with 15 points, while Kenny Gabriel added 14.
“Offensively, we were challenged,” first-year Auburn coach Tony Barbee said. “We had trouble with shots, layups and getting the ball into the post. We lack that against other teams. We are a limited team and are what we are.”
MSU is starting to shed the limitations it once had, and as it takes a few days off before traveling to Georgia on Saturday, a newfound sense of optimism and joy could portend better days.
“Everything’s been going bad for us,” Bost said. “Hopefully we can just keep making a run and keep winning.”