By MATTHEW STEVENS
The Mississippi State Bulldogs made sure they didn’t forget the important part of a season opener – to win the game.
In front of an announced attendance of 4,771, the MSU program handed out Southeastern Conference Western Division championship rings, they hung a title banner to mark the feat but didn’t allow the ghosts of the Rider debacle to occur this season.
“After the ceremony, (junior forward Elgin Bailey) got everybody in the locker room saying we couldn’t repeat what we did last year and I guess everybody took it to (heart),” senior guard Ravern Johnson said.
The Bulldogs (1-0) got veteran performances from seniors Kodi Augustus and Johnson to lead them to a 75-65 victory over Tennessee State Friday night.
After receiving only 15 minutes in the first game last year, Augustus exploded for a first-half double-double that resulted in 24-minute total of 14 points and 14 rebounds for the 6-foot-8 forward.
“My guy wasn’t boxing me out – it was really that simple,” Augustus said. “I knew I could get some points and rebounds down low tonight and that’s what I did early.”
After making only one basket in the first half, Johnson led all scorers with a career-high 32 points (25 coming in the final 20 minutes) on 7-for-17 shooting from the field and 13-of-14 from the foul line.
“You can see why I had a bad headache all week thinking about playing this game without no Ravern,” Stansbury said. “You can look back afterwards and see we need his 32 points to win this game.”
Johnson, who did not practice until Thursday because of a knee injury suffered in practice earlier in the week, became the 32nd player in Mississippi State history to total 1,000 points in his career and did most of his damage off the dribble instead of just as a spot-up shooter.
“I missed three days of practice and me and coach talked after one of the practices and I told him ‘coach I can go,’” Johnson said. “The second half I understood how the defense was playing me and know I had to be more aggressive.”
With the game tied at 44 and only 10 minutes left on the clock, Johnson hit back-to-back shots from beyond the three-point arc to ignite a 15-4 run and give State a big enough cushion to coast to a season-opening victory.
“I tried to take upon myself when it was close that it was time for me to make some plays,” Johnson said.
Tennessee State (0-1), who was down to seven scholarship players after a first-half knee injury to guard Jerrett Towns, struggled to close out the upset because of inconsistent foul shooting and the overall inexperience of their lineup on the floor.
“I thought we played hard enough but we have to hit free throws and learn how to take good shots,” TSU head coach John Cooper said. “Obviously when you fall short – it doesn’t make you feel good to lose.”
In his regular season debut with the MSU program, Brian Bryant had seven points, six assists and five rebounds in 26 minutes while being the floor leader at point guard in the final minutes.
“It shows me that (Stansbury) trusts me to close out a close game (and) trust me to make the right decisions with the ball,” Bryant said.
Mississippi State will have a week to prepare for Appalachian State, who is coming off a 24-win season last year and defeated Tulsa 89-86 on Friday, when they play 7 p.m. next Friday at Humphrey Coliseum.
“The competition is going to get better,” Stansbury said. “Appalachian State is picked to win that Southern Conference division.”