STARKVILLE — In a season of down-to-the-wire finishes, the Mississippi State Bulldogs finally had a chance relax Sunday.
MSU used a 21-3 run at the end of the first half and got a career-high 15 points from Riley Benock in a 74-58 win over North Carolina A&T.
The Bulldogs (5-2) snapped a two-game losing streak ahead of Day 3 of their five-games-in-five-days stretch.
Before MSU”s win Sunday, the average margin of victory/defeat in its six games was just five points. A day after they”d fallen 63-62 to East Tennessee State, the Bulldogs were not only looking to snap a losing skid but also put together a performance where they”d have more positives than negatives.
“We could have easily had no kind of mentally sharpness at all, let these guys hang around and have a tight game,” MSU head coach Rick Stansbury said. “For the first time all year, it allowed me to play the bench a little bit through mistakes. That”s what those guys need (to play though mistakes. This is the first game that wasn”t a nail-biter.”
MSU”s bench totaled a season-high 78 minutes, which is especially vital considering the nature of the Bulldogs” current stretch of games.
The Bulldogs got back to their bread-and-butter perimeter game, knocking down s season-high 15 of 30 from behind the 3-point arc and falling just one make short of tying the MSU record of 16 set against St. Bonaventure last season.
Benock and Ravern Johnson each had five 3s on the day, but it was the former who provided the extra scoring lift the Bulldogs have desperately needed.
Benock”s career-day included a 5 of 7 clip from behind the arc, along with eight rebounds, five assists, two blocks and two steals.
Stansbury”s plea for Benock to pull the trigger from the wing was answered early, as Benock hit two of MSU”s first three shots from behind the arc.
Stansbury “said something to me tonight, about the time of tip-off, ”If you have anything, be aggressive. Look to shoot,”” Benock said. “It was just one of those games where we knew we had to step up and win. I was trying to be aggressive from the start. I got a couple of easy looks and it just carried over from there.”
The only time MSU trailed Sunday was when the Aggies (5-4) scored the opening bucket of the game.
Still, just inside the the 10-minute mark of the first half the Bulldogs led the Aggies 20-18. The knockout punch that had been lacking while closing the first half in the last two games was provided in the form of a 21-3 run before halftime.
Johnson had a trio of 3s and an alley-oop dunk came from Benock during the run, while forward Kodi Augustus had back-to-back dunks.
“We had a little bit of brain freeze, and the young kids could not continue to play at that level,” Aggies head coach Jerry Eaves said. “If we could have kept the game closer, I don”t think those would have gone in as easy. That”s what happens if you stay in games.”
MSU benefitted from a commitment to the running game, which saw Brian Bryant make his second straight start at point guard. Bryant”s ability to push the tempo and effectively dish the ball saw him end with four assists and four points.
“When we”re at our best, we”re pushing in transition, but the last couple of games we were struggling to get stops and rebounds,” Benock said. “We got some steals, stops and rebounds and pushed it. We”ve got guys filling lanes who can shoot the ball — Jalen, Ray, myself, Shaun, Kodi. And we”ve got bigs running, too.
“It helps when we”re running.”
The game was effectively put out of reach by the break, and MSU led by 15 points or more the rest of the way.
Augustus finished with nine points and four rebounds, and Shaun Smith and Jalen Steele each finished with six points.
The Bulldogs return to action today against Nicholls State. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. at Humphrey Coliseum.