In fact Mississippi State (1-1) might have played its best single stretch of the evening after Steele was literally knocked out at 10:40 of the first half. After watching their junior guard lay on the Humphrey Coliseum court nearly five minutes, then leave—assisted on each side—for examination, the Bulldogs went on 13-2 tear and took total control of the game.
“When he went down we just all said we’re going to do it for Jalen,” guard Fred Thomas said. “We kept the energy and picked up the intensity.”
In the process State gave Rick Ray his first victory as a head coach. “I think it’s good to win, whether it be a first one, last one, middle one,” said Ray. “I’m pleased with winning.” Florida Atlantic left 0-2.
But for a quarter of Tuesday evening the visitors were hanging with host State, leading very briefly by a point and holding a tie as late as 11:05. Center Wendell Lewis broke it with his short jumper. That was followed 25 ticks later by Steele’s hard fall, landing on his head by the Bulldog basket. Steele didn’t use the stretcher to depart the court, with trainer Scotty Johnson holding a compress to the left cheek.
He did need a ride to Oktibbeha County hospital for eight stitches to the face, a look at his sore right wrist, and further observation. Ray had no post-game update. “Once we get that information we’ll share it but at this point I don’t know the exact status.” But he was relieved things had turned out better than original, scary impressions seemed.
And all the more with how the rest of this already short-handed squad handled the challenge of playing without Steele, who’d scored 16 points in last Friday’s opener. “I think they care first and foremost for their teammate,” Ray said. “But guys knew they would have to come together and make a run. And that’s good for our guys, that they have that in them.”
Picking up the slack were four Dogs in double-digits, led by forward Rocquez Johnson’s 17. Needless to say it was a career-best for the sophomore who scored a single point all of 2011-12 as a reserve forward. This time he was first forward off the bench and made it count, hitting 7-of-11 shots in 23 minutes. And, showing a lot of new paint-moves.
“I pretty much had to make up for the other night,” said Johnson. He’d missed the opener with concussion symptoms of his own so this was his soph-season debut. In fact Johnson wasn’t even sure he would play in this game for a while. “They said I had to take a concussion test and I took it Monday. I wanted to play, but they said I had to be cleared.”
Fortunately for State, he was. The only downside to his night was 3-of-10 free throwing. Otherwise Johnson nicely complemented starting center Wendell Lewis (eight points, four rebounds) and backup post Gavin Ware (10, 5). Meanwhile freshmen Thomas and Craig Sword were picking up Steele’s slack with 16 and 11 points respectively.
The two rookies were far, far better than in the opener when they had two field goals between them. “We were so mad we lost against Troy,” said Thomas. “We were ready.”
The whole lineup looked ready as four different Dogs accounted for the first four baskets in a 8-2 opening. Florida Atlantic settled down and caught up, but whatever advantage the Owls might have expected from Steele’s departure never materialized. Mississippi State cranked the defensive intensity up a couple of notches and forced six turnovers in a three-minute stretch while the Owls missed five of the six shots they did get off.
“I thought our guys did a pretty good job of turning out at the star,” Ray said. “I didn’t want to give Florida Atlantic any confidence to start off with.”
Even after the 13-2 run ran its course the Bulldogs still had some spark, not least from backup guard Tyson Cunningham. He’d replaced Steele initially, then kept subbing in and out to maintain up-tempo in both directions. “I thought Tyson did a terrific job for us,” Ray said. “He’s a selfless kid but he’s our best communicator.”
State led as much as 19 points before the halftime tally of 43-26. Pausing for intermission inevitably drained some of the adrenalin and the second half didn’t begin nearly as well with one Bulldog basket in four minutes. Still the Owls couldn’t pull any closer than a dozen points, twice, and trailed 54-40 at twelve minutes.
They would score just three points, on a lone trey at 8:56, over the next six minutes as the Bulldogs blew it open. State’s lead peaked at 73-43 with 6:09 left on Trivante Bloodman free throws. Second-half scoring was as well-balanced as in the first, though Ware and Johnson were the dominant presences even when not shooting. They touched the ball most every turn and bounced right back out as needed.
“After (Troy) we reviewed tape, and just told the perimeter guys to work with us,” Ware said. “They did tonight, when they threw it in the post it opened up opportunities for us also.”
FAU guard Greg Gantt had 17 points with a pair of treys, and Cavon Baker 11 points off the bench. State held the Owls to 33% shooting overall while hitting just under half their own shots. “I think the key is we only took ten threes,” Ray said. The coach was much happier with 31 points scored off turnovers. “We want to be a team that forces turnovers and is hard to play against,” the coach said.
Less satisfying was 14-of-28 work at the foul line, and giving the shorter Owls 17 offensive rebounds. Those are areas to address in a couple of practices before the Bulldogs hit the road. Make that the air, as they fly out for Hawaii and the Maui Classic. Their first game is next Monday (5:00 central) against North Carolina.
“It’s just a name,” said Thomas, rather bravely under the circumstances. Ray smiled at his rookie guard’s comment. “Well, that’s them. The coaching staff eels a little differently!”