STARKVILLE, Miss. (WCBI Sports/MSU Athletics) – Craig Sword scored 17 points and was one of five Mississippi State players in double figures Thursday night.
The Bulldogs showed balance and defensive determination in playing its most complete game of the season.
MSU built an eight-point halftime lead before posting a 66-53 win over Florida Gulf Coast in men’s basketball action at the Humphrey Coliseum.
“This was a really good win against a good opponent,” MSU head coach Rick Ray said. “It was our most complete game on defense. It was the best we played as a team since the Ole Miss and South Carolina games at the end of last season.”
Florida Gulf Coast (5-6) held only one lead in the contest, at 8-7 with better than five minutes gone by in the first half. MSU (8-2) quickly regrouped for a 14-10 lead on a layup by Gavin Ware.
The Bulldogs were already establishing a dominant game inside. Ware and Roquez Johnson combined for 20 points and 14 rebounds.
MSU built a six-point lead at 21-15 on two free throws by Craig Sword with 8:02 left in the half.
The Bulldogs forced 14 first-half turnovers and led 32-24 at halftime.
“Coach has been telling us to be aggressive for the entire game,” MSU freshman guard IJ Ready said. “Once we the ball in the paint, then it opens up more 3s. The big thing about tonight is that we were more aggressive for the entire game and our big men played well.”
MSU built its first double-digit lead on a layup by Sword to start the second half. The lead was later extended to 12 at 40-28 with 14:52 left.
Florida Gulf Coast then made one last rally, closing within six points at both 40-34 and 42-36.
MSU stopped the run with an old-fashioned 3-point play from Trivante Bloodman and a critical defensive rebound on the game’s next possession.
“When they got it to six, I was proud of our how guys really responded and found some extra defensive effort,” Ray said. “Hopefully, our team is continuing to get better. That is what you want to see as the season goes on.”
The lead was stretched back to 12 on a tip-in from Johnson at 53-41 with 7:31 left. From there, the Maroon and White cruised to the victory.
“The big men having getting me open on the screens,” said Sword, a sophomore guard. “I have also been more aggressive taking the ball to the rim. My patience has been a lot better this year and that is why I am getting more good shots on the offensive end.”
For the contest, the Bulldogs hit 23 of 50 shots from the field (46.0 percent), 5 of 14 shots from 3-point range (35.7 percent) and 15 of 26 shots from the foul line (57.7 percent). The Eagles hit 21 of 46 shots from the field (45.7 percent), 3 of 18 shots from 3-point range (16.7 percent) and 8 of 15 shots from the foul line (53.3 percent).
MSU held a 33-30 rebounding advantage. The Bulldogs had eight assists and 17 turnovers, while the Eagles had six assists and 21 turnovers.
Behind Sword, IJ Ready followed with 12 points. Ware, Johnson and Fred Thomas each added 10 points. Johnson had eight rebounds, while Ware had six rebounds. Ready also had five of the Bulldogs’ 15 steals.
Florida Gulf Coast, an NCAA Sweet 16 tournament participant last season, received 15 points from Brett Comer, 11 points from Chase Fieler and 10 points from Bernard Thompson.
MSU returns to the road for a Sunday night contest with South Florida in the opening round of the Las Vegas Classic. Game time is set for 7 p.m. CT from the Orleans Arena.