By MATTHEW STEVENS
Ravern Johnson won’t hear his name called as one of the five Mississippi State starters to open tonight’s home contest against LSU but is now setting for it happening every time he scores.
Since his highly publicized two-game suspension after the senior forward sent out inappropriate comments on Twitter following the loss at Alabama on Feb. 2, Johnson has averaged 18.5 points per game and has shot 10-for-17 in the last two games off the Bulldogs bench.
“I've said a number of times, it doesn't matter who starts the game but who finishes it,” Mississippi State head coach Rick Stansbury said. “I like the way he's responded to everything, that's the most important thing. That's a positive for him and that's what we were trying to get from him.”
In State’s 71-58 victory over Ole Miss Saturday, Johnson showcased a more willingness to drive to the basket and get to the foul line instead of his early-season habit of settling for the three-point jump shot.
“He just said he was frustrated but we’ve put it behind us and told him no matter whether he comes off the bench or if he’s starting to come in and play hard,” Mississippi State point guard Dee Bost said. “He’s just finding his rhythm.”
Johnson has made three or more 3-pointers 41 times in his MSU career and the Bulldogs are 33-8 in those contests.
Replacing the experience in the lineup that Johnson had provided for the past three years has been the energy of freshman Jalen Steele as the Knoxville, Tenn., native got 17 points in 27 minutes at Rupp Arena last week.
“We never questioned his effort,” Steele said. “We knew he was going to make some freshman mistakes but it was never going to be about effort. The one thing he hadn't done that we knew he could was what he did at Kentucky.”
Mississippi State (14-12, 6-6 in SEC) enters the game (8 p.m., CSS) in sole possession of second place in the West and if the Bulldogs can hold that position, they will get the much-needed first round bye in the SEC Tournament.
“We’ve won four games in four days, but it’s much easier to do it in three days,” senior guard Riley Benock said.
Earlier this year, MSU knocked off the Tigers 58-57 in Baton Rouge thanks to two free throws by Bost late in the game. Sophomore forward Renardo Sidney paced the offensive attack with his first-career double-double after scoring 16 points and hauling in 11 rebounds.
LSU (10-17, 2-10) has struggled offensively throughout the entire 2010-11 season as the Tigers have been unable to post 65 since the beginning of the new calendar.
“They've had some trouble consistently finishing games but they are very talented,” Stansbury said. “They're very capable of beating anybody.”
Mississippi State has won eight of the last 10 overall in the series and four in a row.