In Rick Ray’s first win as a head coach, he got big performances from a pair somewhat-unlikely stars. Sophomore forward Roquez Johnson had a breakout game after missing the season-opener last week, dropping 17 points and corralling five rebounds in 23 minutes of game time, while freshman guard Fred ‘Flat Top Freddy’ Thomas chipped in another 16 points, shooting 6-12 from the field, 3-7 behind the three-point line.
For Ray’s full post-game press conference, click here and wait for the commercial to finish
While it was mostly positive for Mississippi State in the 78-58 victory over Florida Atlantic, the mood in The Hump turned tense and scary when junior guard Jalen Steele hit the floor hard and didn’t get up for several minutes.
Steele was surrounded by trainers and coaches, who called for a stretcher, but he ultimately waved it off and walked to the locker room under his own power as the 3,000-plus in attendance cheered him on.
Steele received eight stitches on the left side of his head and doctors were examining his left wrist for a potential injury, as well. Ray had no updates available after the game.
“When he went down, we just all said, ‘We’re gonna do it for Jalen,’” Thomas said.
After Steele went down, Ray said he was impressed and pleased with the way his team responded, going on a big run and never looking back, leading by nearly 30 points for portions of the second half, with only seven scholarship players available.
Of course, the Bulldogs did have some impact coming from the non-scholarship part of the roster, too.
Walk-on Tyson Cunningham scored his first career points (two of them), roped in four rebounds, dished out three assists and tangled two steals.
I’m running out of verbs to use for basketball statistics, but that’s not a problem for Cunningham, who Ray called his most vocal player.
The head coach was plenty pleased with Johnson, too, who had only scored one career point before his offensive outburst in the paint tonight.
“Roquez is an aggressive kid. I think he’s our toughest competitor,” Ray said. “I don’t design anything for him to get in the paint, he ends up there.”
And players finding their way to the basket is exactly what Ray wants. Forcing 27 turnovers, MSU was able to score frequently in the fast-break and keep FAU on their heels.
“They got to just play basketball, which what I want,” Ray said. “I don’t want to run the half-court offense all the time.”
Sophomore Trivante Bloodman got the starting nod at point guard and played well, often on the court with freshman Craig Sword at the same time. Bloodman scored nine points, hauled in five rebounds and had a game-high seven assists for MSU.
Sword appeared as comfortable as he’s been dating back as far as the exhibition game, shooting 4-of-8 form the field and totaling 11 points in 21 minutes, though he did have five turnovers.
The euphoria of their first win will have to be cut short, as the Bulldogs get ready for the next game leave for Hawaii on Thursday, where they will face nationally-ranked North Carolina in the Maui Invitational.
One of the game’s other freshman stars, forward Gavin Ware, said he’s excited about the trip and not concerned about who he plays. Ware had 10 points and five boards, shooting 50 percent from the floor against FAU, and he’s excited to test his mettle against the Tar Heels.
“They’re just a name,” Thomas said. “They gotta suit up just like we do.”
Thomas struggled a bit against Troy in the opener, but said he and his teammates were “just so mad” about losing the game and made a significant effort in practice to fix as much as they could. They seemed to do just that, and obviously got a big boost from Johnson.
“I bring a lot of energy to the team and help everybody,” Johnson said. “I’m quick to be in my position at the four, so I go against the bigger guys and I just go around them.”