And the score was not at all reflective of just how thoroughly the Dogs dominated the ‘Dores. State led by double-digits for over thirty clock-minutes, out-shot one of the SEC's leading offenses 53% to 42%, and crushed Vanderbilt on the backboards. If the visitors had handed over their ranking to the home team it would have only seemed fitting.
"I think that's the best we've played all season," said sophomore guard Jamont Gordon. "Everybody was involved, we were making plays and playing great defense."
Yet no Dog was more involved than Gordon, who recorded only the second ‘triple-double' in program history. He scored 15 points, dished out ten assists, and collected a dozen rebounds (all on the defensive boards). And the Nashville native denied that his virtuoso performance had anything to do with beating his home-town school.
"I got juiced because of how close we were to winning that championship. I just went out there and played hard."
The championship in question is the Western Division title, which with three games left remains very much in play. It was a three-way tie going into Wednesday, but Alabama fell behind with an overtime loss at Tennessee. Ole Miss stayed even with State by beating Georgia. And yes, the Bulldogs were keeping score. "We're watching, we know right now…" said Gordon, pausing to hear that Alabama had indeed lost. "Tennessee won? We know they won!" he said to media laughter.
. "We all know how big it is," said Coach Rick Stansbury said. Very big, and not just in SEC terms but for improving State's slender resume for post-season consideration. Beating a ranked foe for the first time this year meant almost as much as staying on top of the Division. Fortunately the Bulldogs found the right mix of emotion and preparation to take on a Commodore club that itself is playing for NCAA position and was coming off an upset of #1-ranked Florida.
"I told our team I don't know if we've played any harder as a group," said Stansbury, adding, "We've been able to score for a while, we've been putting up a lot of points. But the thing we've got better at is defending."
Much better. Vanderbilt came in third in SEC scoring and one of the best squads anywhere at producing perimeter points. But State's four-guard lineup adjusted how they attacked the other offense just for this matchup, Slater explained. "Coach wanted us to be more aggressive, instead of jumping in passing lanes we could just put our numbers in them. He wanted us to play hard and smart at the same time."
The result was a thoroughly disrupted Commodore club that had just as many turnovers as field goals in the first half, ten apiece. Not only that, Vanderbilt missed their first four trey-tries and were 2-of-9 from the arc late in the first half. They hit some open threes in the last half but only after falling behind by as many as 27 points.
State was far more efficient, especially in the opening half. Junior center Charles Rhodes set a resounding tone by dunking for a Bulldog basket barely a dozen seconds after tipoff. He had two more slams before the first media timeout and five dunks in all, en route to scoring a game-high 23 points. He added eight rebounds and blocked a pair of shots, leaving no doubt who was the big man on this court, this night.
"It was all about who was going to bring the toughness first," Rhodes said. "We threw the first punch and it ended up our way." There was more than metaphor to Rhodes' evaluation as Vanderbilt seemed shaken from the start and never truly recovered.
"We were in rhythm early," said Gordon, "I knew it was going to be one of those good nights for us. Charles got a couple of dunks, I was knocking down shots, I knew it was going to be a good night for us."
And a bad night for the guests, who opened in man-defense only to be instantly overpowered by Rhodes. The tighter perimeter defense paid off with turnovers that Gordon converted into assists or a couple of three-balls. Slater first made it a ten-point margin with his traditional three-point play at 16:13 for a 14-4 score.
Switching to zone did the ‘Dores no better as Gordon rammed another three through for a 17-6 lead. VU's Derrick Byars finally got a long shot to drop but State had no problems responding. Rhodes powered for a layup then blocked a trey-try, with Gordon making it hurt by draining one from the corner. That had Vanderbilt calling for time, down 27-13.
"I thought the first half when we were really manning them we guarded them as well as they can be guarded," Stansbury said.
Even after Jermaine Beal put together four points on consecutive trips State saw that bid and doubled it with four players getting two points of some sort each in a 8-0 run. Substitute center Jarvis Varnado was the wild card, blocking a shot at one end and popping a jumper on the other. Just to show it wasn't a freshman fluke he did it again the next trip for an 18-point margin. Stansbury had long since been shuffling lineups with every combination producing points. The Bulldogs even had some fun, as when Gordon pulled up on a break and lobbed to Rhodes for his third dunk of the half. Gordon got another assist before the break with a kick-out to guard Reginald Delk for a three-ball and 45-27 intermission margin.
And Delk began the last half the same way, with an open three. Slater and Rhodes scored on rebounds and Richard Delk drove for a short jumper that stretched the MSU lead to 54-30 less than three minutes into the period. Stansbury has watched this squad let good leads go bad too often, but tonight was another, better matter. "You have to keep your foot on somebody. We came out the second half and built on that margin, that showed another level of maturity."
By contrast Commodore frustration began to show, such as when JeJuan Brown missed a pair of free throws—once unthinkable for VU—and Byars nearly earned a technical while fouling. A Barry Stewart trey made it 64-37, at which point the Bulldog offense went into neutral. Shots stopped falling for the next eight minutes, with only five free throws to show for the span. Meanwhile with State dropping back into a static zone Vanderbilt managed to chip their deficit down to 15 points inside of six minutes, which was not to be confused with a comeback.
"It was already too late," said Rhodes, who emphatically ended the bucket-drought by banking one home and drawing the foul for a three-point play. All that remained was establishing the final score, and getting Gordon his 3-D. A bounce-pass to Slater for the layup at 1:20 did the trick, as the soph joined Lawrence Roberts as the only Bulldogs with triple-doubles to their credit.
Slater scored a season-high 18 points with seven rebounds, while Reginald Delk added 13 points with three treys to go with Gordon's four. State's bench only needed to provide ten total points in this romp. Only two Commodores got into double-figures, with 12 points for guard Dan Cage, all on made-treys. Forward Shan Foster had 11 points, but leading-scorer Byers was held to seven points on a 16.8 average. Brown had eight points and a team-best eight rebounds.
"I thought we had some special efforts," Stansbury said. "I thought Jamont was special all night long, I thought Charles was a beast inside, they had no answer for him. And Dietric Slater was Dietric Slater."
And the Bulldogs are becoming the team they thought they could have been, perhaps should have been a month ago. "When we were losing we couldn't finish," said Slater. "Now we know we can not only compete but we're at the point we can beat everybody that we play."
The next everybody is Georgia, in Athens this Saturday. With the West still even at the top and Alabama only a step behind the Bulldogs have little luxury of a stretch-run stumble. Nor can they look too far ahead just yet.
"Just focus on one team at the time, you know?" said Gordon. "We know what we've got to do, we're not worried about the last two games, we have to go play Georgia."