Down 49-37 on their court, with the local crowd (officially 9,489 but maybe half that) as hostile to them as the visiting Bulldogs, the Tigers responded with 11 unanswered points. Six of those were on free throws, the last pair by forward Tasmin Davis making it 49-48 State with 2:52 still to survive. LSU even had a shot for the lead, with struggling center Glen Davis' shot attempt rimming-off and Bulldog guard Barry Stewart rebounding.
Coach Rick Stansbury halted play for discussion at 1:48, and Rhodes set a huddle. "I came in and talked to the guys, just like I do in The Hump. And when they listen to me they feed off me." For sure they fed the ball to Rhodes, as he took guard Ben Hansbrough's assist and powered over—actually, into--the 295-pound Davis for a short flip and 51-48 score.
"That's what we were trying to do," Stansbury said, "trying to get him in an X-move. Ben made a nice pass where they couldn't double-team quick, and Charles finished it."
There was still the matter of finishing out the afternoon. LSU's Mitchell missed a long shot to tie, with the Tigers rebounding and Davis scoring just a layup. Davis put Gordon on the line at 0:35; he made the first, missed the second but Bulldog G/F Dietric Slater slapped the carom back to Stewart for another fouling. The freshman converted both chances at 0:27, and after Davis of all folk fired and missed the trey-try Gordon rebounded and made the clinching foul shots at 0:14.
With their win the Bulldogs left Baton Rouge 15-10 overall and, after taking four of their last five games 6-6 SEC. Though just break-even, combined with a win by Alabama and loss by Ole Miss it is good enough to have State in a three-way deadlock for first place in the Western Division. The Tigers fell further into the West cellar at 14-11, 3-9 SEC.
This was also State's second-straight SEC road win. "Y'all won't have anything to write about any more!" quipped Stansbury. More seriously, having watched his club climb from the depths of the Division to the top, the coach was openly proud. "Those kids have found a way. And we've found a hard way this year, as you guys now. Today was the first time we won playing ugly."
‘Ugly' being in the eye of the beholder. "To get a W on the road, it's just magnificent right now!" said Rhodes. Still the coach—the one in the suit, not the self-proclaimed player/coach—had a point. The Bulldogs managed 41% shooting and were just 4-of-14 at the arc, which had been their strongest suit in turning the SEC season around. Only Rhodes and Gordon got into double-digits; next-highest was the seven points off the bench by Stewart. Take away the top two scorers and the other Bulldogs shot a combined 10-of-30.
But if State's play wasn't pretty, the home-town Tigers were downright hideous with 36% shooting and only three treys made. More meaningfully, despite mostly using a four-guard lineup the Dogs beat the bigger cats on the backboards 38-28. This against a Tiger team that out-rebounded State by ten in Starkville earlier this month.
If this was ugly, well, things still looked pretty darn good to the Dogs. "We scored 28 under our average," Stansbury said. "But we held the other team about 20 under their average. And you'll win every game you hold the other team to 50 points."
The key to holding these Tigers down was defending Davis, who had 27 points and 10 rebounds in LSU's loss in Starkville. He came in the SEC's second-leading scorer; he finished with 14 points, eight of those from the foul line. Here too Rhodes was key to success.
"I watched film of the first game we played, I had him and he was making a lot of shots. I reviewed every play he was doing, how he was getting the ball. The plays go through him so I had to do a lot of things, and I think I held him to like three buckets." Correct, as Davis shot 3-of-11 from the floor. Not only that, he was so stifled inside that he tried four treys and missed all. Mitchell finished as game-leading scorer with 17 points and guard Terry Martin added 10, with two of his team's treys.
"Our defense won the game today," Stansbury said.
Offensively State's initial gameplan, attacking both the goal and Davis, was obvious and successful. Rhodes took five of the team's first six shots, with the exception a driving floater by Reginald Delk. Not until Gordon pulled on, and hit, a threeball did the Dogs even attempt a true jumpshot. That one put State up 10-8 and triggered a 11-3 Bulldog tear with baskets by Rhodes, Piotr Stelmach, and Jarvis Varnado.
For their part the LSU offense was out-of-sorts from the start. Davis did not even attempt a shot until 10:58, and that forced effort in traffic didn't reach goal-level via fouling. State stayed hot and Barry Stewart drained the trey for a 21-12 lead at the ten-minute mark.
"Charles did a great job (on Davis)," Stansbury said. "And we mixed it up on him. When he caught it in the short corner we didn't run at him. And when he put it on the floor we ran at him. I don't know if he knew when we were coming or not."
But the Bulldogs kept the pedal to the floor and produced unforced turnovers or hasty and errant long shots. LSU used the reprieve to get three-pointers from Martin and Mitchell and chop into the deficit. That Tiger pair combined for two more baskets, before Davis finally got loose for his first goal of the day and a 26-26 tie at 3:31. It was still a deadlock at intermission, 28-28, as three LSU attempts to go in front missed including a jumper from Davis at the buzzer.
Rhodes put his side back ahead 32-30 three minutes into the last half, followed by a stretch of awful offense from both teams. A frustrated Davis resorted to shooting and missing trey-tries, though State was little better until after an offensive board Gordon went to the goal for a three-point play. It was the start of a 11-point burst by the Bulldogs that could have settled the issue early. Gordon turned a Reggie Delk steal into another layup, then Delk struck for three himself and a 41-30 Bulldog advantage.
Gordon let his temper take over after having a shot blocked, intentionally fouling LSU's Johnson to break up a sure slam. But it still worked out MSU's way after all with two missed free throws, and a Davis charge (of Slater) afterwards. Having taken that tough contact Slater came back with a trio of baskets, two off rebounds, to stretch the difference to 47-33 after three quarters.
Yet again the Dogs didn't handle prosperity with poise. "We went a long period where this team didn't understand you have to attack but at the same time be patient," Stansbury said. Instead State either rushed perimeter shots in transition or failed to dribble-drive and keep the Tigers on their heels. On LSU's end Davis worked hard for fouls, getting them and free chances for unguarded points.
So when Mitchell was able to cash in a putback it was a three-point game, and after Rhodes and Stewart missed in the lane—with no small amount of accompanying contact—the Tigers did get a call and free pitches from Mitchell. With 2:52 it was 49-48, and LSU had their shot at the lead.
Davis missed, and Rhodes didn't. "That was a good player move right there, you know?!" he said. A good player/coach move, even. "The ball came to me and I just hit it off the glass."
Which is one more reason why, after looking almost entirely out of SEC contention three weeks ago Mississippi State suddenly seems to be playing in glass slippers at the moment. "I think it's desire to win," said Rhodes. "Desire to win the championship." That any Bulldog could even breathe that word in mid-February reflects just how far State has come this month, as well as about the convoluted condition of the Western Division.
"We control our own situation," Stansbury said, an hour before the Ole Miss loss at Arkansas was in the books. "Right now there's three teams that if you win all your home games you're 8-8. Somebody has to go on the road and separate themselves. We're going to take one at a time, you can't look past anybody, but now it's taking shape.
"The players understand where we're at. It's a four-game season, everybody has two on the road and two at home. If anybody wants to separate themselves, win one on the road." Though State's next opportunity comes on the home court, with Vanderbilt—fresh of their win over #1 Florida—visiting Humphrey Coliseum this Wednesday.
Rhodes said the lost opportunities of January still "haunts us." But the Bulldogs have also turned those failures into February motivation. Now they can see a path to the prize over these next two weeks of the regular schedule.
"Those four games feel like twenty more," Rhodes said. "We've got to step up as a team because it's going to be real amazing if we win all four. But it's not going to be easy."