STARKVILLE — “Dunk City” is false advertisement.
The Mississippi State men’s basketball team proved Florida Gulf Coast University’s marketing campaign for its Sweet 16 team from last season is a falsehood, or at least it was Thursday night at Humphrey Coliseum.
MSU made it a point not to allow FGCU to get into transition to replicate any of the offense it showed last season in its NCAA tournament run. The result was a 66-53 victory that featured no dunks for the high-flying Eagles and a tempo that helped the Bulldogs earn a dominating win.
“Coach (Rick Ray) came in the locker room and said they were all about getting out on the break and dunking,” MSU freshman IJ Ready said. “We knew all about Dunk City and what they did in the tournament, and we weren’t going to let that happen.”
MSU’s transition defense and a packed-in zone contained FGCU junior point guard Brett Comer’s 94-foot game to four fast-break points. Comer led the Eagles (5-6) with 15 points, but the 6-foot-3 guard was unable to turn the corner on any defender or to get into the lane for layups or highlight reel dunks the program became famous for last March.
“I would hope they don’t want to get dunked on any game,” Ray said laughing. “But I think that Florida Gulf Coast is really lethal in transition. We made a point of that. We can’t let these guys get in transition.”
MSU sophomore guard Craig Sword led all scorers with 17 points. The Montgomery, Ala., native is shooting 71.4 percent from the field (35 of 49) in his last five games. Sword also guarded Comer man-to-man.
“The big men have been getting me open on the screens,” Sword said. “I have also been more aggressive taking the ball to the rim. My patience has been a lot better this year, and that is why I am getting more good shots on the offensive end.”
FGCU captured the nation’s attention for nearly two weeks after defeating Georgetown and San Diego State in the 2013 NCAA tournament and becoming the first No. 15 seed to get to the second weekend of March Madness. However, their coach, Andy Enfield, immediately left to become the men’s basketball coach at Southern California. Former Kansas assistant Joe Dooley hasn’t been able to replicate the excitement.
“When you’re throwing the ball the other way it’s hard,” Dooley said. “I thought from a passing and catching standpoint and in every aspect, to be honest, we were very poor. For whatever reason, we came out sluggish and slow, and I don’t really know why.”
MSU (8-2) contributed to that sluggish play by forcing 21 turnovers, which was a season high for the Eagles. The Bulldogs also tied a season high for steals with 15. Those FGCU miscues resulted in 16 points and allowed MSU to set the tone in a game that had just two lead changes. FGCU never regained the lead after guard Fred Thomas hit a 3-pointer to give MSU a 10-8 lead with 14 minutes, 41 seconds left in the first half.
“It’s really all about our defense,” Ready said. “We’ll go through practice sometimes and never work on our offense. If we play defense, then we can turn that into offense.”
The victory was the program’s first under Ray against a team that had reached the NCAA tournament the previous year. The 53 points is the lowest total MSU has allowed since a 60-42 victory against Alcorn State on Nov. 27, 2012.
“I think what you’re seeing is the idea that without class in session our guys are doing what they’re supposed to and working on their games,” Ray said. “It’s all about basketball now , and they’re all maturing to take their individual responsibilities to get their work in.”
MSU will play South Florida at 7 p.m. Sunday in the opening round of the Las Vegas Classic at the Orleans Arena.
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.
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