Fortunately there was no locker room conspiracy. And if Mississippi State did not execute as well against a real opponent as in practice, they were still too good for visiting Texas-San Antonio in a 53-42 victory. The Bulldogs improved to 3-5 with the home win, same record as the Roadrunners left with.
Central to the success, literally, was postman Wendell Lewis. After watching a 16-point, 11-rebound effort Saturday at Providence, Ray commented how he wanted the senior center to string some similar performances together. Lewis did so and even better this time, scoring a career-high 20 points.
"Something is working for me," Lewis smiled. "I'm in a good mood, staying positive, taking care of myself. I'm feeling good!" What felt good was watching eight of his nine shots drop the right way, including all four of his second-half attempts when the Bulldogs finally put it away.
"We're going to grind out and win some ugly basketball games," Ray said. "That's what we're going to do."
It certainly wasn't pretty, most notably in a first-half stretch of nearly seven minutes where neither team scored. Anything. In that stretch the teams combined to miss 15 shots, and two free throws; and turn the ball over 12 times. Yet even this mutual messiness played to the favor of the home team, eventually.
"We didn't have the chemistry at the beginning of the game," guard Craig Sword said. "When we got it, y'all saw the results."
More so on defense as the Bulldogs held UTSA to 27% shooting overall and worse accuracy at the arc. And the Roadrunners did throw it up a lot from long-distance, no less than 29 times with just seven going good. Three of those did come in the opening minutes though as the ‘runners took an 11-6 lead at 13:12. But UTSA ended up relying on the longball too much and paid for it, either missing or twice having such shots swatted off the hand by Sword or guard Fred Thomas. In all State blocked seven attempts with three by freshman Thomas.
"That's the key to our defense, jumping to the ball," Thomas said. "It eliminates everything if you jump to the ball, that's how I got my three blocks." Thomas finished with nine points and a pair of treys, while Sword scored 13 with three assists.
It was a Sword three-point play that sparked State on-track, and layups by Colin Borchert Lewis that regained the 16-14 lead at 8:21. And it was still that same score at two minutes left in the half. Ray didn't panic. "The big thing is I thought we got some opportunities at the rim and didn't finish them. Our guys were playing hard and doing things the right way."
Staying the course allowed State to score three baskets, including a Thomas trey, to take a 23-17 halftime lead. UTSA did not get closer than seven in the second half either, though the largest Dog lead was a dozen on a Sword three-point play.
Kannon Burrage had 15 points for the Roadrunners and Hyjii Thomas added ten. The visitors had a two-rebound advantage including a frustrating 15 offensive boards, but didn't convert enough second chances into points. And while State turned the ball over 17 times, UTSA did so 20 and the Bulldogs doubled them in points off giveaways 18 to nine.
Ray was impressed how well his team absorbed scouting and handled Roadrunner ball-screens without fouling or leaving lanes open. And the 27% shooting allowed was also encouraging.
"Obviously I'm really pleased with our defensive effort. We've been talking to our guys for quite some time that we have to go out and win some ugly basketball games. We struggle offensively, we've got a young team. But our guys tried to pass the ball around and didn't do things in their own interest offensively."
Ray and team now have a lengthy December stretch to work on offense, defense, anything they choose. The Bulldogs are open until the 15th when they travel to Chicago for a touted meeting with Loyola, a half-century after the schools met in State's historic first NCAA Tournament appearance.
"We're never going to have an opportunity like this again," Ray said. "We have to take advantage of these ten days. We have to take this opportunity to get our guys better, because from here on out it's game preparation."