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STARKVILLE, Miss. (WCBI/MSU Athletics) — Mississippi State ushered in the Rick Ray era with an 80-74 exhibition win against William Carey University Sunday at Humphrey Coliseum.

(Courtesy of Bill Simmonds)
Mississippi State’s Wendell Lewis slams one home during the Bulldogs’ victory over William Carey on Sunday.

The Bulldogs never trailed in the game’s final half but were not assured of victory against the NAIA Crusaders until Wendell Lewis sank six free throws in the final 2:05 of regulation time.

“I credited him after the game, because if he did not make those free throws the game becomes a little tighter,” Ray said. “Then we are in a situation where we have guys without experience, and they don’t know how to handle that. Those are free throws at the end were huge.”

MSU placed four players in double figures. Jalen Steele led the way with 17 points, followed by 15 points apiece from Lewis, Fred Thomas and Colin Borchert. MSU played a total of nine players, with each logging a minimum of 11 minutes apiece.

“We will never settle on a starting lineup,” Ray said. “We will continue to look at players and at rotations. It was good to see the guys in actual game setting. We were a little disappointed in the defensive effort and our inability to get more of the 100-0 balls. Some coaches call them 50-50 balls. We call them 100-0 balls, because our goal is to get every one of them.”

Fresh off a season-opening victory over Blue Mountain College, the Crusaders scored the game’s first six points. MSU battled back for a 7-6 lead on a jumper by Colin Borchert. Things stayed nip-and-tuck with Carey eventually sprinting out to an 18-11 advantage.

The Bulldogs would trail by as many as eight before a 14-6 run by MSU tied the game at 32. Fred Thomas scored back-to-back baskets, including a 3-pointer to knot the contest.

MSU shot 43.3 percent from the floor in the first half and eased out to a 41-36 advantage at halftime.

“Carey alternated their offenses and we were not ready for that,” Ray said. “We were not as good as we need to be defensively against each of their offensive sets. It is a work in progress and we will get there. In some circumstances, players were looking to the bench to make sure they were in the right defensive sets.”

Ray continued to look at different rotations in the game’s final half. The Maroon and White scored the second half’s first five points to grab a 46-36 lead with 18:11 remaining.

Carey remained patient on offense and eventually fought its way back into the contest. The Crusaders closed within three at 54-51 and later forced a tie at 63. Steele quickly answered with a 3-point basket and the Bulldogs were not headed after that.

For the contest, the Bulldogs hit 26 of 57 shots from the field (45.6 percent), 8 of 23 shots from 3-point range (34.8 percent) and 20 of 30 shots from the foul line (66.7 percent). The Crusaders hit 26 of 69 shots from the field (37.7 percent), 6 of 24 shots from 3-point range (25.0 percent) and 16 of 22 shots from the foul line (72.7 percent).

MSU held a 45-40 rebounding advantage. The Bulldogs had 11 assists and 16 turnovers, while the Crusaders had 14 assists and nine turnovers.

Jeremiah Dunnings led Carey with 20 points. Kelvin Nixon added 19 points, while Daron Bell added 11 points.

MSU opens the regular season with a 7 p.m. start Friday at Troy. The home opener is at 7 p.m., Nov. 13 against Florida Atlantic.

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