STARKVILLE — Starting the possession at the top of the key, Mississippi State point guard Iverson Molinar glided into the left corner in the opening minutes of his season debut.
With a North Texas defender closing in, Iverson fired off a shot from beyond the arc that rang true, as if Molinar hadn’t missed a beat all season. The only thing more impressive than his scoring output was his efficiency, as he scored 15 points on an efficient 5 of 9 shooting effort in 29 minutes of action. It was a key factor in the second straight win for MSU (2-2) after the Bulldogs took down 2019-2020 Conference USA champion North Texas (1-2) by a score of 69-63 Friday at Humphrey Coliseum.
Nevertheless, don’t let the box score fool you. Returning to practice just Wednesday after missing MSU’s first three games after testing positive for COVID-19, the 6-foot-3 guard admitted he was tired after playing for his first 6 minutes.
“It’s why I went hard these last two practices, just trying to get my legs back,” Molinar said. “I feel like I’m getting there.”
In his absence, Molinar watched his teammates go 1-2 without him, losing by Clemson and Liberty, which still haunts him to this day.
“That really hurts because I really love the sport,” Molinar said. “The hardest part was watching my teammates, I feel like I let them down the first three games. I really felt bad. But I didn’t have any symptoms, so I feel blessed that I didn’t have any.”
Stamina issues aside, even though Molinar’s addition gave a sorely-needed boost to the backcourt, his 3-pointer in the opening minutes was the only MSU made the entire night. Shooting just 10 percent from beyond the arc Friday, MSU compensated by limiting North Texas to 35.7 percent shooting.
“You can win a game where you shoot 1-for-10 from three if you play really good defense,” said MSU coach Ben Howland, who won his 100th career game with the Bulldogs. “And our defense was tremendous tonight.”
Howland’s Bulldogs limited North Texas to 20 points in the first half and one 3-pointer, while center Abdul Ado bolstered the paint defense with five blocked shots.
“What’s nice is we had four guys in double figures, so we had some balance tonight,” Howland said. “We kept our turnovers down, we only had 10 turnovers against a team that plays great defense and is very well coached.”
Taking a nine-point lead into halftime, North Texas kept MSU honest throughout the second half, constantly chipping away at the deficit, but coming no closer than four points. In addition to Molinar, other Bulldogs in double figures included D.J. Stewart (16) and Tolu Smith (12), both of whom finished with double digit points for the fourth straight game.
“Bottom line is, I thought D.J. was pressing a little bit (in the first half), but he settled down,” Howland said. “He’s a veteran guy, I think he really took over the second half.”
Jalen Johnson added 10 points off the bench, and made six free throws after getting fouled twice from beyond the arc.
“We’re very encouraged (by Jalen),” Howland said. “He’s a really smart player and getting better defensively.”
MSU is back in action against Jackson State at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Humphrey Coliseum to close a three-game homestand.
Hodge is the former sports editor for The Dispatch.