By JOEL COLEMAN
The Humphrey Coliseum was rocking, the Bulldogs were rolling and after flirting with opening-night disappointment, MSU was able to continue the momentum it built over the offseason.
Mississippi State used a 29-4 run midway through the second half to put away Eastern Washington 106-88 in front of 9,931 fans at the Hump on Friday night in the much-anticipated MSU debut of head coach Ben Howland.
The Bulldogs battled back from double-digit deficits twice on the way to the victory.
“I’m really proud of our team,” Howland said. “We didn’t drop our head when we were down. We didn’t give up. We fought back. We never stopped believing.
“And obviously the crowd was great. It was a phenomenal atmosphere in the Hump. Everybody’s been telling me ‘Coach, it’s going to be so fun in the Hump. Just wait and see.’ They were right. It’s really a special place and I’m happy for our fans. They were fired up.”
Former Starkville High Yellowjacket Gavin Ware brought MSU supporters to their feet throughout the night, leading the charge for the Bulldogs with his 13th career double-double, scoring a career-high 26 points and bringing down 13 rebounds.
“He was tremendous,” Howland said of Ware. “He kept us in the first half.”
Ware said he hopes Friday night was just a taste of things to come. When asked after the game if his performance was the best he’s ever had, Ware was direct with his answer.
“Yeah, for now,” Ware said. “I hope to have better.”
I.J. Ready also scored a career-best 25 to help Mississippi State rack up its best point total since 2011.
MSU was able to set that mark thanks largely to the game-changing run in the second half. Down 70-66, The Bulldogs turned the tables.
“There was a lot of time left to play and we just wanted to get back in it stop by stop,” Ready said. “We didn’t panic. That was our first time really being down together as a unit, but we stuck together and stayed together.
“Last year, we all might would’ve separated and try to go our own way, but we stayed together and gritted it out.”
Highly-touted freshman Malik Newman didn’t play in the contest for the Bulldogs. Newman, who has dealt with turf toe the last few weeks, just had a cast removed on Tuesday. He went through pregame warmups, but never saw the floor for game action.
“We decided that until he goes through a full practice, which will be on Sunday, we’re not going to turn him loose again for fear that I don’t want a long-term injury that will keep him out,” Howland said.
Though Newman sat out, fellow freshman Quinndary Weatherspoon did get his first minutes as a Bulldog. Weatherspoon scored a dozen in his initial game.
“This was my first time to ever see the Hump with that many people in there,” Weatherspoon said. “I’ve never played in front of that many people. But when Coach Howland put me in the game, he said he needed me to knock down shots and that’s what I did.”
No shot was bigger for the newcomer than the one he made with 9:35 left in the game. With the Bulldogs starting to roll, Weatherspoon hit a three to put the Bulldogs up 76-70 as MSU started to pull away for good.
“That was the shot that gave us a shot in the arm,” Howland said. “It put distance between us and (Eastern Washington) and we built on it.”
Travis Daniels scored 16 points for MSU. Fred Thomas added 10.
Thomas’s biggest contribution for the Bulldogs came defensively. According to Ready, MSU was able to alter the course of the game thanks to Thomas.
“Fred came in and stepped up to keep their guard out of the paint and that was really the reason for our run. Thomas made that run for us and we capitalized on the offensive end.”
The Bulldogs will try to carry over Friday’s momentum into their next game. MSU hosts Southern University on Monday at 7 p.m.