By JOEL COLEMAN
Mississippi State was starting to take control late in the first half of Saturday’s game against South Carolina. On the way to an eventual 68-58 win at Humphrey Coliseum, I.J. Ready got a steal and heaved the ball downcourt to teammate Craig Sword.
“I could’ve just gotten a layup, but I wanted to bring a little more excitement to the game,” Sword recalled.
Sword lobbed the ball high off the backboard. Gavin Ware, following just behind Sword, grabbed the carom and slammed it home with such authority that the Harlem Globetrotters would have been proud. At long last, after years of lows and very few highs, Mississippi State’s veterans were having fun again.
“This ranks at the top (since we’ve been here),” Ware said. “This is as close as we’ve ever been with each other with team chemistry and togetherness defensively and offensively.”
Sword and Ware, both seniors, along with Ready, a junior, haven’t had much to get excited about since they each donned the maroon and white colors of the Bulldogs. The losses piled up under the leadership of previous MSU head coach Rick Ray.
Even after current head man Ben Howland took the reins of the program prior to this season, Mississippi State still found itself continually coming up short.
Still, there were signs of hope. Despite dropping their first five Southeastern Conference games, four of the five defeats came by six points or fewer.
“Throughout the games we lost in conference, we were losing by five or six points to everybody,” Ready said. “When you’re losing by five or six, you’re right there. It’s just the little stuff that we had to do.”
Finally, on Jan. 23, MSU broke through with an 83-77 home win over instate rival Ole Miss. Since that day, Mississippi State has a winning record, going 6-5 in the last 11 games. MSU has won four of its last six including three victories over potential NCAA Tournament teams, most recently downing the Gamecocks on Saturday.
The South Carolina team MSU dispatched sits just one game out of first place in the SEC standings. The Gamecocks had already topped the Bulldogs by 10 points, 84-74, earlier this year. Yet here the Bulldogs were, just as they had done so many times earlier in the month, celebrating a victory over one of the conference’s best.
“I think (South Carolina) is the toughest, most hard-nosed, physical team in our league so that to me is what is really gratifying (about winning),” Howland said. “The only way you can have success against them is to be equally tough and I thought our guys displayed that.”
Toughness is a trait Howland has emphasized to his Bulldogs since his arrival on campus. Though it has taken a bit longer for everything to click than Howland had hoped, it’s obvious at this point his teachings are sinking in.
“We just kept believing and kept playing hard,” Ware said. “We just kept believing in Coach Howland’s strategy and what he’s trying to accomplish here. We just kept going with it and believing in each other and counting on each other and holding each other accountable each and every day in practice and games.”
Suddenly, for Ware, Sword and all the Bulldogs, the game they all love was fun again.
“I think success leads to fun,” Howland said. “We’re learning how to compete, learning how to be tough and learning how to be physical. I’m really proud of those kids. They’re improving. They’re getting better. That’s what you want as a coach. The whole mantra is to try to be the best you can be to keep growing as a team and as individuals. I think we’re really doing that.”
Two games remain on Mississippi State’s regular season schedule for the Bulldogs to keep the good times rolling. MSU travels to Ole Miss on Wednesday before hosting Auburn this coming Saturday.
From there, the Bulldogs will head to Nashville, Tennessee for the SEC Tournament.
Weeks ago, not many would have given MSU much of a chance to make noise in Music City. At this point though, the Bulldogs have served notice their best basketball might just be in front of them.
It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that Mississippi State has risen from the ashes to become one of the league’s most dangerous teams. After all, their head coach has been preaching the benefits of tenacity for months.
“We’ve just got to keep trying as hard as we can,” Howland said. “We’ve got to keep working and never give up and keep giving our very best. That’s what I’ve tried to do and that’s what I’ve demanded they try to do.
“I’m really excited about the improvements that we’ve made here over the last half of this conference season. I’m hoping we can build on it and keep moving forward.”