Former Starkville High School player Gavin Ware goes up for a dunk for Mississippi State Tuesday night. (Photo by Kim Murrell, SDN)
It was a bittersweet win for the Mississippi State men's basketball team Tuesday night.
The Bulldogs (1-1) cruised to head coach Rick Ray's first victory with a 78-58 decision over Florida Atlantic (0-2) at Humphrey Coliseum, but junior guard Jalen Steele was injured in the process.
Steele crashed to the floor hard and hit his head with 10:37 remaining in the first half.
He walked off the court on his own power, but was taken to the hospital where he received eight stitches in his head and had his right wrist examined.
"He was taken to get evaluated and obviously we don't know that information yet," Ray said. "Once we get that information, we'll share it but at this point and time, I don't know the exact status of Jalen."
The Steele injury didn't seem to rattle the other Bulldogs as they went on a 13-2 run to extend their lead to 29-16.
"I think they care first and foremost about Jalen, (and) they care about their teammate," Ray said. "Guys knew they would have to come together and make a run. That's good for our guys that they have that in them."
The place was quiet as Steele was on the floor for about 5 minutes. His teammates decided to rally behind him and pull out the win.
"We just said we would do it for Jalen and pick up the intensity," freshman guard Fred Thomas said.
The Bulldogs jumped out to an early 8-2 lead and that is exactly how Ray wanted his team to start.
"Our guys did a pretty good job, jumping out at the start," Ray said. "This is a team, Florida Atlantic, that if they got off to a good start in our place would be a problem. I didn't want give Florida Atlantic any confidence to start off with."
The Bulldogs entered the locker room at halftime with a 43-26 lead.
The Owls came out in the second half and scored the first four points to cut the MSU lead to 43-30, but junior walk-on guard Tyson Cunningham got a layup for his first career points for the Bulldogs on a basket to make it 45-30.
"I thought Tyson Cunningham did a terrific job for us," Ray said. "He's a a kid who comes in and is really selfless. He helps our motion offense. He is our biggest and best communicator."
MSU coasted in the second half as it outscored the Owls 35-32.
The Bulldogs were on shooting as they knocked down 30-of-61 field goals for 49.2 percent. They only shot 10 3-pointers, but connected on four of those, for a 40 percent mark.
MSU struggled at the line as they only knocked down 14-of-28 free throws.
The Bulldogs only turned the ball over 16 times. The forced the Owls to turn the ball over 27 times and they scored 31 points off of those turnovers. They only forced 12 turnovers in the 56-53 loss to Troy last Friday.
"We want to be a team that forces turnovers and is hard to play against," Ray said. "Once we get those turnovers or a defense rebound, we are able to go out, push the basketball and get some things in transition."
MSU got 48 points in the paint, doubling what they had against Troy. A big reason for the points in the paint was sophomore forward Roquez Johnson. He paced the Bulldogs with 17 points.
"Roquez is an aggressive kid," Ray said. "He's our toughest competitor. He doesn't shy away from contact and he likes being down there in the paint. I don't design anything for him to get into the paint, but he ends up down there. He goes after loose balls. He is an active body."
Starkville High school standout and freshman forward Gavin Ware scored 10 points for the second game in a row.
"We have plays and I just come in and do my part," Ware said. "Just being a presence down there opens up spots for the guards. It allows everybody else to score and everybody else what they need to get."
With the win the Bulldogs avoided the first 0-2 start since the 1967-68 season.
Thomas was second in scoring for the Bulldogs with 16. Freshman forward Craig Sword had 11 points.
MSU travels to Maui, Hawaii for the Maui Invitational next Monday. The Bulldogs open the tournament with North Carolina. Tipoff is at 5 p.m. and can be seen on ESPN2.
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