How hard a fight this entirely-rebuilding Auburn team could have put up is debatable. Mississippi State's effort was not, at least not in the ten or so clock minutes required to take complete control. The Bulldogs bolted to a double-digit lead by 14:57 of the opening half and were up as many as 21 before intermission.
Just as they intended.
"It's been a while since we had this big of a win, by this margin," wing guard Ravern Johnson said. "It feels good, to know that everything is starting to click and we're back on our winning thing."
Johnson was certainly back on his own thing, of scoring points. The senior had come into SEC season averaging a league-best 20.1 points, only to score a combined 14 points in State's first two conference contests. Sunday though saw a much more familiar Johnson as he knocked down a game-best 21 points with a pair of three-pointers.
"I did a lot of shooting yesterday, I knew my rhythm wasn't the same," said Johnson. "Hopefully everything is back on track."
Sophomore center/forward Renardo Sidney stayed on his own track with 15 points and six rebounds, as well as a trio of sharp assists and two blocks. Starting guard Riley Benock added 11 points and freshman Jalen Steele came off the bench for 10 more.
Well and good, but Coach Rick Stansbury saw something even better. "The big thing was our team came out ready to play defensively." Play it well, too, as the Bulldogs allowed just 25% Tiger shooting in the first half. Even allowing for Auburn's general level of offensive futility this season, keeping them out of double-digits until 5:53 of the first half reinforced the coach's comment.
Guard Earnest Ross led the Tigers with 15 points, and forward Kenny Gabriel came off the bench for 14 more. Most of that came in the last half after the game had been long-settled, though, and Auburn's starting frontcourt had just four total points all day. Had State taken a bit better care of the ball the margin would have been even worse, as Auburn was able to score 22 points off home-team turnovers. Then again much of that came in the waning minutes when Stansbury cleared the bench. Literally, as all 14 dressed Dogs got into the game.
Auburn had a single shot for a lead. It was their first of the game, and Josh Wallace left it short. Sidney rebounded and the rout was on as he powered for a layup at the other end. Somewhat unusually it was just a routine two-point play…because in the opening ‘quarter' State was able to dump the ball in, get fouled, and make the extra shot for three-point trips by such Dogs as Bost and forward Kodi Augustus.
Of course the home team also had no problem throwing in straight-threes too. Such as on a trio of trips with Bost, Benock, and Johnson all ripping longballs and blowing the lead out to 22-3. The Tigers were obviously not concerned as not once in a 18-1 Bulldog run did they consider slowing momentum by stopping the clock.
An Augustus freebie inside seven minutes made for the first 20-point margin (28-8). Auburn did muster something resembling a ‘run' thanks to a Chris Denson trey—his team's first—and a putback by Gabriel to make it 30-16. Not that the Bulldogs were worried, as a seven-point spurt answered nicely and by halftime the margin was a healthy 41-22.
Gabriel did his best to keep it somewhat competitive in the second half, scoring ten-straight points including a trey. Having pulled within 15, it was Ross' turn as he scored a rebound and trey that had MSU's margin down to a dozen, 53-41. Ross even put up another long shot, only to have it go long and wrong; Benock didn't at the other end, his corner-three ending any realistic rally. Bulldog backup Steele, a one-time Auburn signee released after their coaching change, made sure of it with a personal 10-point run for a 68-43 scoreboard at 7:55.
With nothing left to lose the Tigers tried a lot of full-court trapping, which when broken allowed for repeated lob-dunks from Johnson and Sidney. And in garbage time it was reserve center John Riek getting into the act with a stuff of his own.
Stansbury may have relied entirely on zone defense in Thursday's win at Ole Miss, but he used this matchup to get more man-to-man practice done. In the first half, at least. "We picked up some fouls and made some subs," he said, with a cost to cohesion that did allow a few more Auburn opportunities. "We played zone most of the way after that, (but) we started the second half in man." Auburn shot 46% in the second half which had no impact on the outcome but annoyed the coach a little.
"We didn't make enough plays, you have to attack them," Stansbury said. "They were scrambling and we didn't make them pay." Or not as much as a veteran team would. This is an area where the Bulldogs will only improve as the revamped lineup with Bost and Sidney gets that on-court feel for everyone.
"It's different for us because we're still trying to get our rhythm and our chemistry down pat," Bost said. "So we need every practice that we can get."
As far as competition the Bulldogs can relax for most of a week now, not playing again until Saturday when they also face their first Eastern Division opponent. State takes on #24-ranked Georgia at 3:00ct in Athens, and those other Bulldogs enter the week 13-3 and also 2-1 SEC. Georgia hosts Tennessee on Tuesday evening.