"It was real good," said guard Steele. "This game we put more emphasis on finishing."
Steele was referring to State's Sunday collapse against Alabama A&M, when a 15-point lead in the first half evaporated into a stunning 59-57 loss. Falling to a SWAC squad was, Coach Rick Ray said, a "public embarrassment" and hard for everyone to shake off for days. "My wife wanted to go out New Years Eve, and I was embarrassed," Ray said. "And I know our players were the same way. But I said to our players we had to find a way to get better from this."
Lesson learned, to say the least. The Bulldogs slapped New Orleans immediately for a dozen unanswered points, holding them scoreless until 14:45 of the first period, and never let the margin below double-digits again.
"This is a really good win for us on a lot of fronts," said Ray.
It was a really good game for forward Colin Borchert with his team-leading 17 points. Working more in the paint due to lack of post personnel, the junior manufactured baskets off the glass—though he also tossed in a three-pointer—and cleaned it too with eight rebounds. Borchert credited more practicing lately without pads by postmen taking real contact for improving his low-post moves. "It was just finishing the ball."
Borchert even made defensive plays on the floor with five steals, and he blocked three of the nine total shots swatted aside by Bulldogs. That was more than half as many shots as the Privateers made going 17-for-51, or 33% against some solid defense. Center Gavin Ware and guard Fred Thomas had a pair of blocks, and the team's defense led to 23 UNO turnovers with 14 steals.
I think they only had seven assists," Ray said. "Our guys were active, and when you force turnovers you can really go play transition basketball."
It was just plain efficient offense though that made for the fast start. Guard Tyson Cunningham got it going with a corner three but it was moving the ball inside for layups by Ware and Borchert showing State's plans. When New Orleans sagged a bit it left Borchert and Steele open for made-treys. Meanwhile the Privateers missed their first six shots, until a second-chance layup from Rarlensee Nelson.
More fun was to come once the defense began causing real chaos and cheaper scores. Reversing the usual roles, forward Borchert lobbed to guard Thomas for a back-door dunk. And after missing some forced shots, G Craig Sword scored as he deflected a pass on one end and got downcourt for the layup-feed and a foul to boot. State's lead reached twenty points on a Thomas bucket and was 43-16 at halftime. In the first period the Privateers scored just seven baskets, compared to six of their shots blocked by Bulldogs.
Ray had a brief but nervous flashback though when his team began the last half with a scoreless stretch of their own. There was also a technical called on Borchert after he fouled, then shoved Lovell Cook down. Fortunately the defense stayed steady and UNO got no closer than 22 points, but the coach used a timeout for teaching. "I showed them the clipboard, and said nothing here that's going to help you. We're going to start playing bad basketball and let them back in, or play the way we know we can play."
Meaning, make stops until the offense returned. Which it did as State went on a 17-0 tear beginning with forward Rocquez Johnson's three-point play. Longballs fell for Thomas and Steele as the lead ballooned to 61-23 at 13:15. It was fifty points with a minute remaining, but rather than throwing up a shot for the century Mark Thomas dribbled out the last seconds.
Steele hit four treys in six tries and scored 16 points, same as Thomas. Johnson came off the bench for 14 points while Ware had ten points and eight boards. No Privateer scored double-digits with Cooke and Kevin Hill scoring seven. Eddie Denard had nine rebounds for New Orleans, which returned just this season to Division I status. They were 1-of-8 at the arc and beaten 40-27 on the backboards.
Whether the Privateers were comparable to Alabama A&M, "I don't know and don't care," said Ray. "All I know is our guys played well." State shot 57% and was 11-of-21 on treys, a season high as were the total points. Of those 46 came off the bench, too.
That bench will stay thin through SEC season, though Steele's return after a seven-game absence is a great help. But center Wendell Lewis, who could potentially return from a cracked kneecap suffered mid-December, won't. Ray said an official request for a medical redshirt will be submitted, and that Lewis comes in one game under the limit for playing this season.
The Bulldogs have most of a week now to prepare for the second half of the schedule, which begins next Wednesday when South Carolina comes to Humphrey Coliseum for a 7:00 league opener. "Going into SEC play its going to be hard," said Steele of a 18-game grind with a short roster. "But we have to keep fighting and play together."