But just as in the previous three wins over lesser competition, Mississippi State made enough happen to keep the record unblemished. In this case it was switching to an aggressive zone defense…and letting Johnson and others take and make shots.
The first was something of a gamble given State's preference for man defense. The second? No risk at all given that Johnson came in as the SEC scoring leader at 25.3 points. All he did was increase his November pace.
"The way we are right now it's a lot more scoring load on me, which I'm glad to accept! It was another close win for us, too."
A little too close in fact. "We're just trying to survive them all," Coach Rick Stansbury said. "As long as we can get a W we'll move on." Though, the coach added, "Tonight we slipped back, just a lackluster performance energy wise."
Not from Stansbury, who at times was farther out on the court during play than some participants trying to light a fire under State. The Bulldogs were another matter, and lacking luster nearly cost them a defeat that would have been even more glaring in March. Fortunately Johnson was able to sustain State in regulation, then teammates take over for overtime.
"When we're not playing with emotion and toughness we're fortunate to win any game, and that's kind of how it was tonight," Stansbury said. "I understand, there's reasons. The scoreboard doesn't understand that it's a holiday, you have to show up ready to play with energy and emotion." Actually the scoreboard wasn't sharp either as the computerize statistics system failed during the first half.
The immediately available final numbers were points, which of course count most, and four Dogs joined Johnson with double-digits. Alternate point guard Brian Bryant came off the bench for 15 markers including clutch scoring in overtime. Starting guard Riley Benock had 12 points, forward Kodi Augustus 11, and backup guard Jalen Steele 10.
Troy was led by guard Vernon Taylor with 24, including the biggest three points of the evening as he clanged in a 25-footer before the buzzer to send it into extra play. Center Bernard Toombs had 19 points, forward Levan Patsatsia 15, guard Travis Lee 12 and forward Shantez Patterson 11. For a couple of clubs that don't have a lot in common, the non-conference contest developed a somewhat personal approach in the second half.
"It was a lot of noise-talking tonight, more than I've heard in a while," said Johnson. "I just took it on myself to make sure we won this game."
Though the coach saw sluggishness in some areas, the Bulldogs were certainly quick on the first half trigger as they got caught up in the Troy tempo. Both teams played as if there was a limit on allowed passes, and the shot clock operator wasn't needed. Problem was most of the shooters showed a post-Thanksgiving chill and the teams were just 13 of 36 from the field before the stat system crashed.
After few flips of the lead Troy's Lee stuck a three and then a trio of free shots, as the Trojans jumped in front by 34-24. It took Augustus moving closer to the goal as an offensive ‘center' to rouse State and cut the halftime deficit to 38-34. In the second period Stansbury went back to more typical posts and Elgin Bailey showed his first offensive moves of the year for five straight points.
But he was caught flat-footed on the other end when Troy switched to screening and slashing by Patsatsia and Toombs, stretching their lead back to double-digits. Something different was needed.
"Everybody was telling everybody we could still win the game, nobody get down for no type of play," Johnson said. And with the Trojans up 63-52 things did change. First the Bulldogs dropped into the zone and at least made Troy work longer and harder for shots. "It's a work in progress for us but it worked tonight," said Benock. "It was a good switch up no doubt and we got some big stops and rebounds out of it."
"Down ten you've got to change something," said Stansbury. "They were cutting us up and Elgin couldn't move, Kod couldn't guard Patsatisia. So we had to change, took the dribble way from them and made them a three-point shooting team." Which the Trojans failed to do; in fact Stansbury's bench stats showed Troy scoring just six times in 20 trips against the MSU zone.
By contrast Johnson and Benock threw in four combined bombs for a 67-65 lead at 5:10. State should have put it away in regulation at 73-69 with Bryant at the foul line for two. He made one leaving the door barely cracked. Toombs crashed for a rebound basket and after MSU turned it over the Trojans also lost the handle…only to have Bryant forget the situation and throw the ball upcourt and out of bounds at 2.3 ticks.
Just enough time, as Taylor got the inbounds throw and worked far enough forward to hurl at the backboard. The carom popped twine for a 74-all scoreboard and five more minutes. Johnson put State up in overtime with a driving layup, for a lead the Dogs wouldn't lose because the Trojans' tried to trump with a trey try that missed. Bryant made it a two-shot margin with his attack of the goal, and from there on all MSU really needed was convert enough free throws (eight in all) and keep up the better defense. Augustus did most to stretch the lead with four freebies and a layup for his six overtime points.
"To our credit we could have folded many times," Stansbury said. "I'll take the positives from that, we got down and found a way to fight back."
Which is something State has had to do in all their wins this year, to varying degrees of urgency. But, Benock said, not panic. "I don't think you get used to it. Hopefully we can find a way to get out of this trend and start playing better. Instead of letting up or taking off a little bit, put the team away."
This was the 100th overtime game in MSU history. In his 13 seasons, Stansbury is 13-12 in OT.
Mississippi State is off until next Tuesday evening when they host Florida Atlantic in a 7:00 contest. It will also be the last Bulldog game until after exams, with the season resuming December 11.