Actually all the Bulldogs had made their point, and points, well before the end of this game. Down by as much as 13 points in the first half, Mississippi State roared back and ran away with a 83-68 victory over visiting Georgia at Humphrey Coliseum. Forward/center Rhodes put up 27 points and Slater 22 more as State scored a third-straight win on the home court and finished February above break-even at 14-13, and 4-10 in SEC play. The Georgia Bulldogs fell to 15-12, 5-9 SEC, and lost a fourth consecutive meeting with MSU since 2004.
It was such a rousing afternoon that when he knew his day was done Rhodes fulfilled a personal vow of sorts. "I'd said if I ever got my career-high at The Hump I will kiss the floor," said the soph, whose best previous effort was 24 points in December in Jackson, Miss. "So I had to do it." And indeed Rhodes put a wet-one on the ‘M State' logo en route to the bench. Questioned how the hardwood tasted, Rhodes winced. "Oh, please, don't ask me!" he said.
"That was just showing the fans appreciation, we'd been through our skid and they're still supporting us. And I was just letting everybody know I will be back next year."
Not that many of the 6,332 who came out on a wet afternoon to watch State take this battle of the Bulldogs were thinking of next year at the moment. All were enjoying both the brilliant individual efforts of Rhodes and Slater, as well as double-digit performances by guards Jamont Gordon and Richard Delk with 13 points apiece. "It was no individuals, it was all about the team," claimed the court-kisser.
It was also just as much about a remarkable comeback by the entire team. Aggressive and accurate outside shooting staked the visiting Dogs to double-digit leads most of the first period, with Georgia popping seven three-point baskets over a frustrated MSU defense. With just over four minutes left in the opening period the margin was still ten points in favor of UG.
"We had plenty of opportunities to fold," said Stansbury, "but we never folded." Instead State ended the half by out-scoring Georgia 10-5, and opened the second period with an amazing 16-0 run that changed the lead and decided the day. Even Stansbury was surprised to find out afterwards it had been a 16-point surge; at the time he'd thought it was just eight or ten points. But the coach was clear on how it happened.
"I thought our kids came out the second half and played at that other level of energy and toughness. We out-rebounded them 48-31, and we shot almost 60% from the field." State also limited Georgia to 34% shooting in the second half, and all the made-baskets came after MSU had built their own double-digit lead. Georgia managed to miss their first 12 attempts from the field after halftime as the home Bulldogs rose to a locker-room challenge.
"Coach said they were the most physical team in the league," Slater reported. "We wanted to prove to coach we could play defense as well as they can and we were as tough as they were."
At the same time State got their own offense in-gear, building on the better results to end the first period. They had gone from trailing 29-16 to within 37-32 at the break, and on the first play of the last half Slater was able to drive for a banking layup, foul, and free throw…State's first made shot at the line after five first-half misses, in fact.
Rhodes came back with one free throw of his own, then the next time he turned the lead and perhaps the game around. With Gordon pushing the ball and three strides inside halfcourt, he sailed a lob to the right side of the rim that Rhodes snared and slammed in one motion. State was in front, 38-37, their first lead since 18:13 of the opening half, and Georgia was calling time.
The pause only seemed to help State reel off ten more unanswered points. Gordon banked a trey home and Richard Delk dunked off a bounce-feed that had Georgia dropping briefly into a tight 2-3 zone. Delk came back with a pullup jumper, and Slater raced end-to-end for a layup, foul, and second three-point play that had State in front 48-37 at 13:50.
The outburst came because Georgia was missing those dozen-straight shots, with two turnovers tossed in, and State was able to play in transition before UG could set up the trapping 1-3-1 zone that caused so much first-half trouble. Instead of settling for outside shots, State attacked the lane and scored. "The thing we did well was penetrate, get it inside and get some shots for Charles, and get to the foul line," Stansbury said.
Georgia's drought finally ended at 13:38 on a Steve Newman layup, but the damage had been done. Georgia managed to get within six points twice, at 52-46 on a Mercer trey and again at 54-48. Slater started another burst with free throws, and fed sub-center Wesley Morgan for a dunk at 8:28 to get the margin back into double-digits. Meanwhile UG lost center Dave Bliss to fouls, removing most of their modest rebounding muscle. It showed as Rhodes and Richard Delk scored on putbacks for a 67-52 lead at the five-minute mark. Later when Gordon missed a second free throw, Rhodes got inside to recover and score his last points of the afternoon.
"I thought I was going to hit 30," Rhodes laughed later. As it was he hit 11-of-15 shots and five free throws, and had eight rebounds. Slater was 8-of-13 from the floor and was even better on the boards with 10, giving him double-doubles in consecutive Saturday home games after a 16/13 outing against Mississippi. "It feels good, I wish we could play every game here on Saturday," he said.
Two hours earlier the emotions were somewhat different. After spotting State a Rhodes basket, Georgia ran off seven quick points and set a theme for the first 15 minutes. Guards Levi Stukes, Sundiata Gaines, and Channing Toney combined for seven three-pointers as UG raced ahead. "We played defense," Rhodes insisted, "But they were still making it in our face. We kept our composure."
It wasn't easy as not only were Georgia's longballs dropping but State was struggling just to get the ball across halfcourt without being trapped and turned-over. With senior Jamall Edmondson out, suffering from both developing pneumonia and a strained groin, freshman Richard Delk got his first start since January 7 at one guard while Gordon ran the point.
"I heard in practice Jamall was kind of sick," Richard Delk said, "so Coach told me to be ready to start. So I tried to step up today." So did Gordon, who after some rough minutes settled down and quit forcing the issue. In fact many times he was within a tick of a tock of a ten-second violation. The really scary thing was that Slater was giving Gordon tips on how to beat a press.
"In the beginning Jamont was working on it too much," Slater said. "It was very simple, if the dudes fall away from you dribble to them, and if you dribble to them throw it over the screen. It got kind of easy and we were scoring a lot over them."
Slater certainly was, reeling off six creative points in a row to break Georgia's momentum and steady his own team. And when the Bulldogs finally got into transition Rhodes finished breaks with dunks, pulling State within six points. By the break it was a five-point difference and Rhodes and Gordon were both in double-digits already.
UG Coach Dennis Felton thought his team lost the game there. "We were holding a 10-12 point lead a good portion of the first half, the last few minutes they started gaining some momentum," he said. "They started feeling better about themselves. I thought it coincided with us losing control of the glass."
Richard Delk not only got his 13 points, a freshman-season high, but added eight rebounds and five assists. "I thought Richard had a little swagger to him," Stansbury said. Gordon actually topped the team in rebounding with 12 and notched his third double-double, and while he had five turnovers it was just half the giveaways as at Auburn Wednesday night.
Stukes topped Georgia with 17 points while Gaines and Toney had 11 apiece. None of them hit a three-ball in the second half, though, and Georgia was whipped on the glass by 17. The UG Dogs did record 13 steals, and even when the offense fell apart they played just as hard on the other end. Not that the home Dogs minded once they got a feel for the officiating.
"They were pushing and banging on me, thinking I wouldn't push back," said Slater. "I like the physical games, if the refs don't call it I love it." It didn't even bother the junior too badly when he got jabbed in the right eye in the second half and kept playing. "I didn't want to come out, I was contesting a shot but I didn't see the ball or nothing!"
"I'm awful proud of that win because of the effort," Stansbury said. "It started (with) our ability to defend and rebound, and that allowed us to get out and play in transition. I thought our quickness and skill level was the difference in the game."