"It was more trying to win," said Bost of the campus finale. "Senior night was special, but the main thing we wanted to do was win." The Dogs, of all classes, got what they wanted in a big way, and now go to the conference meet with renewed confidence. Not to mention a much happier state of mind given the stresses and strains of a frittered-away February.
"We didn't have to go down to the last horn," said a relieved-at-last Coach Rick Stansbury. "We haven't had many of those. It's good to get on them like that for everybody. I was able to get my gold team in too." That being the scout team Dogs who were able to make cameo appearances for their home crowd, including senior Taylor Luczak. He even got in the box score with the last basket of the game.
Upperclassman Bost and Bryant had larger numbers, and in Bryant's case it really was a best-for-last finish after he notched 16 at South Carolina including the game-winner in overtime. The two-guard followed that up with 7-of-8 shooting at home, one of those a trey on his lone such try, to go with four rebounds and three assists. And, one impressive block-from-behind to foil a Razorback layup. Nine of his points came in the first half during the stretch State was taking total control.
"I was seeing opens," he said, "and they kept telling me to take the open shots." Not just telling but yelling at times, to which Bryant responded well. Bost saved his best scoring for the last half and for the day had seven assists with four boards. Sophomore guard Jalen Steele threw in a dozen as well, and consecutively at that in a torrid second-half stretch.
The big Dog for the day though was a junior who may or may not have seen the last of the Hump. If so, forward Arnett Moultrie went out in all-conference style with a 20 point, 10 rebound display and his 18th double-double of the season. And, some vindication after he had just nine points with four turnovers in a January 6 loss at Arkansas. The games were at opposite ends of the SEC schedule, giving State time to take an opposing approach in the rematch with Moultrie.
"We shared that basketball, we took care of that basketball, pressure was no factor against us," Stansbury said. "They sped us up the first time, we turned it over some. Tonight we got it inside, we were constantly trying to get it inside." Moultrie took only nine official shots but made seven of them, and was perfect on six free throws. It allowed center Renardo Sidney a relatively easy 22 minutes with five points and five boards, and backup Wendell Lewis added six points off the bench.
It was an inside/outside approach Arkansas had no answer for, especially without any help from pressure. "The game was at their pace," Coach Mike Anderson said. "They had an opportunity to take advantage of their size, and Bost did a good job controlling things."
Guard B.J. Young paced the Razorbacks with 16 points, while guard Mardracus Wade had a dozen points, all on three-pointers. Forward Rashad Madden added ten. But Arkansas dug itself into a huge first-half hole on 32% shooting, 2-of-10 at the arc, and was crushed 36-27 on the backboards.
And, "We limited them to four fastbreak points on the game," said Stansbury. "And that's where they're at their best." Not that the Dogs got much credit for true ‘break' points with just four as well, but quite a few buckets came in transition however they were counted. And State gave the fans ten dunks to cheer, whether off lob-slams or emphatic putbacks.
"They were ready to play this afternoon," said Anderson.
Few more so than Bryant as he did as much directing in the first half as nominal point guard Bost. He took advantage of open shots, shredded Razorback defense with hard drives, and just made things happen. Such as after a missed trey-try by Sidney, when Bryant chased down the carom in the corner and blindly threw it backwards into play…to be caught by the right team for a fresh possession and Moultrie dunk.
"I needed to step up with Rodney (Hood) hurt and Jalen kind of struggling," Bryant said. "I tried to take the pressure off Sid, Arnett, and Dee."
The opening was a reporters dream, because after tipoff the clock didn't stop until 15:56 when Moultrie was fouled. His free throws made a 8-5 lead, and when Bost threw in three the home team was up 15-9. Arkansas settled down and found good gaps for jumpers, then converted a steal into a dunk for a 15-15 tie.
Moultrie broke it with free throws and rejected at the other end to set an interior tone. He also blocked B.J. Young for what became a Lewis breakaway. Bryant was feeling it so that he took, and made, a three as the Bulldogs lead reached ten points. The intermission margin grew to 37-23 as the Razorbacks missed six straight shots down the stretch against the zone Stansbury felt free to play with a lead.
It didn't get much better for the overmatched visitors after halftime either, with the Razorbacks briefly getting as close—so to speak—as eleven. That's when Bryant made his acrobatic save leading to Moultrie's big jam. Arkansas was so discombobulated offensively that a first-half lob hit the rim first to count as a missed ‘shot'. Ironically when State's Bost was off on a lob in the second half, it went in the goal unintentionally for two points.
Steele snapped out of his shooting slump to stick consecutive, no, three-straight treys for a 57-35 scoreboard. He even forced a foul on a missed longball and cashed all three free throws for the same net result. "We never question him not shooting," said Stansbury. "At halftime he hadn't made one, I got on him for turning one down! But he's one of those guys capable of jumping up and making shots."
State made sure this was one halftime lead that didn't get away, much less turn into a loss, by shooting 56% in the second period. The margin peaked at 29 points with 4:30 left on a Bost trey.
"I thought our guys came out and did what they were supposed to do on senior night," Stansbury said. "I thought we played extremely well together. It was a great team effort, I was glad to see our two seniors go out on the right note. Taylor got in and made a shot, that was the first one of the season?" Not quite, just Luczak's only points of SEC season."
Now it is on to SEC Tournament season. Beating South Carolina and Arkansas salvaged a #6 seed, though the Bulldogs are still frustrated over falling out of the top-four with their first-round byes thanks to a five-loss streak that ended last Wednesday. They draw #11 Georgia, the team that began the skid with an overtime win in Starkville, for the late game this Thursday.
At least they go to New Orleans with the most momentum State has claimed since January, and with the goal of locking up a beyond-bubble-question NCAA berth. The number look good as of today, but Stansbury and State have learned to take nothing for granted. If the seniors have anything to say about it, though, they will be dancing in another week.
Better late than never, Bryant agreed. "Two years of ups and downs, I'm just happy to end on a good note."