Where Rhodes had left the house unhappy in the previous two trips, this time he was smiling after his first double-double and easily the best all-around effort of his short Mississippi State career. "It felt real good to play in the Big House," the Lanier High alumnus said. "Every time I come here I make sure I play well. Now that I've played this well, I've got to keep playing this well because I showed everybody what I could do!"
Certainly his coach was watching. "That was his ability tonight," Rick Stansbury said of Rhodes' effort over just 28 minutes. "That was the most energy he's played with. When you score you have energy, but tonight he rebounded and scored. He got rebounds and putbacks, that's what he needs to do for us."
Rhodes, who came in averaging 5.1 boards through eight games, had more than doubled that rate by halftime. His 7-of-10 shooting was indeed helped by grabbing teammate misses and stuffing them for a couple of his five total dunks. But Rhodes also scored on set plays against the overmatched Gamecock frontcourt.
"We saw they couldn't handle our post presence, so Coach said get the ball inside and I was the one there," Rhodes said.
But he wasn't the only big Dog this night. Starting center Wesley Morgan had a career-best 15 points and his own double-double by snaring ten boards. Forward Piotr Stelmach and center Vernon Goodridge came off the bench for 11 points each and seven combined boards. And had soph Walter Sharpe been available—he was benched for this game after being late to Monday's practice—the backup center would likely have added to the damage being done around the rack. State finished with a 56-31 lead in rebounds, and second-chance buckets were a large part in the team's overall 60% shooting.
The backcourt wasn't left out of the fun, as starting point guard Richard Delk got a dozen points and Dietric Slater came off the bench for ten more on 5-of-7 shooting. Those two got most of their offense during the crucial minutes either side of halftime when the Bulldogs took complete control of what had been a competitive evening to then.
The Gamecocks, taking advantage of MSU miscues and hitting some sharp shots from long range, kept the crowd of 4,445 nervous for most of the first half and led 42-36 with 3:47 left to the break. Guards B.J. Spencer, a Starkville native, and Walker Russell had five treys and 21 points between them. Much of the Bulldog offensive difficulty was due to starting point guard Jamall Edmondson sitting on the bench in sweats, unable to play with an aggravated groin pull. Rookie Richard Delk, playing only his second game after an early-season foot injury, got the start.
But it wasn't the young point guard's fault that the entire team was caught up in the end-to-end, quick-shooting game that Jacksonville State wanted. "The first half we played more to their strengths and we had some bad turnovers, we were looking for one pass and a shot," Morgan said. And not good enough shots, as State missed the first six attempts from the field.
Down six points, the four-minute media timeout gave Stansbury a chance to get his team's attention and demand a more organized gameplan. When play resumed the Dogs put together a 10-1 run to end the first half, starting with a loose-ball dunk from Rhodes. Slater got loose for a jumper, then finished a fastbreak with a layup. When Morgan shook off his shorter defender for a layup State was back in front, and guard Michael Boler forced a tie-ball/steal with nine seconds left…plenty of time for Slater to go end-to-end for a layin and 46-43 intermission lead.
The first three minutes of the last half completed the turnaround as State put together a 11-2 surge, with Morgan scoring a rebound and Delk sticking a jumper and an open three-pointer. Morgan drew a foul, made both free shots, and his team was suddenly in front 55-45.
"Coach wanted us to come out with better focus and intensity," Morgan said. "We were able to string some shots together." Several of those shots were by Rhodes as he roused the home crowd with a series of slams and stops. Jacksonville State managed to cut the deficit to seven points twice, the last at 68-61, but Rhodes squelched that rally with four free throws and a rebound basket.
The margin reached 21 points on a basket by forward Jerrell Houston with 3:23 left, plenty of time for Dog reserves to reach 100 points. Houston did the honors on free throws after Spencer earned a technical foul at 1:09. All eleven Dogs who played scored at least one basket.
Spencer finished with 21 points to lead JSU, while forward Courtney Bradley added 13 points with ten rebounds. The Gamecocks shot only 35%.
Despite the final margin of blowout victory, Stansbury couldn't be entirely pleased. "Only 24 turnovers?" he asked semi-sarcastically. But the coach was more than content with what has become an annual December trip to the metro area where State has won six-straight games over the years. "As always, this has been a great venue to bring our bb team to. We had a great crowd again, it was great for our fans in Jackson and we're glad to keep this series going."
And even if it wasn't a pretty event it was a win by a still-new ball club State is fielding, or at least trying to depending on who is healthy and unsuspended. "As I've said from day-one, it's not game-to-game with our team, it's possession-to-possession. But I'm proud how they made plays to separate themselves."
Now the Bulldogs separate themselves from home for several days, leaving early Friday morning for Puerto Rico and the San Juan Shootout. State will practice two days, then play a game Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday in the eight-team event. Sharpe is booked for the trip, and Edmondson hopes to be healthy. "Our biggest question will be who we have and who we don't have," Stansbury said.
The next Bulldog home game is December 30 back at Humphrey Coliseum against George Mason.