Two days before the conference campaign tipped off in January, Rhodes proclaimed that the SEC championship "ran through him" and his team. As the Bulldogs struggled through much of the season the prediction was often thrown back at the junior post player. But on the last day of the conference schedule Rhodes had the last laugh and biggest smile.
"I said when we came in (the) championship was running through us," he said leaving the court. "The whole team played together. It was just team unity out there, and we blew them out."
The team might have been united but only one Bulldog left the court with a ‘trophy.' Senior guard Dietric Slater was wearing the one net cut down to commemorate a (half) championship. He said it was clear the younger players had no experience in properly trimming twine. "Look at this," he said, picking at the rough-cut ends. "That's why I went last. I wanted to get the whole thing. I'll probably wear this a couple of weeks."
Rhodes was not only correct in his long-term prediction but his game evaluation with a 24-point margin of victory. The West-clincher was in most ways the easiest State success of February and came at the end of a convoluted campaign. To Coach Rick Stansbury the ends justified the means.
"This team didn't do it the easy way," he said. "We were sitting at 2-5 with a young team. They could have folded pretty easy, they didn't. To see them in this position I'm very proud." Stansbury could also take pride in the fifth SEC West championship either won or shared by a Bulldog team, most of any Division team. State had been tied with Arkansas at four apiece.
Alabama (20-10, 7-9 SEC) failed to claim a share of this title or to complete a season-series sweep of State after their one-point victory in Tuscaloosa three weeks ago. This contest wasn't allowed to stay that close as the Bulldogs took advantage of Crimson Tide problems. Alabama had to play the entire afternoon without injured point guard Ron Steele, and most of the first half with foul-limited center Richard Hendrix.
Even with a full lineup the Tide would have had trouble matching a motivated Bulldog bunch. Without both their inside/outside stars, Alabama was just overmatched. "That hurt," UA Coach Mark Gottfried said. "For about ten minutes we hung close, but it's a tough dilemma. There were some times we didn't have our guns out there."
All Bulldogs were on-target and on top of their own games Sunday. Even Slater, hampered by injuries to his left hand, his lower back, and a knee, came ready for the home finale. "Most of it was mental, at gametime the blood is flowing and you're excited and hyped," the senior said. "It feels good going out with a win." In possibly his last home-court outing Slater scored ten points with fur rebounds.
Rhodes had the big numbers with 18 points, seven boards, and swatted four of the dozen Tide shots blocked by Bulldogs. It was Rhodes who first got State on the scoreboard with a dunk, and his last points came on another slam at 6:17 of the second half. Between those bookend-stuffs the 6-8 junior was the game's big Dog. "He played awful well today with 18 points and seven rebounds," Stansbury said.
Guard Reginald Delk had 16 points, guard Ben Hansbough 13 off the bench, G/F Jamont Gordon 11, and both Slater and backup C Jarvis Varnado ten. It was a quiet game for Gordon, usually State's leading scorer, but his nine assists meant points for teammates. "It wasn't about scoring today, I just found the open man and they made shots." At a 49% rate, an accuracy diminished late by a flurry of meaningless attempts well after the outcome was settled.
Alabama did make good on almost 42% from the floor but that was deceptive as well. With Hendrix sidelined for 20 game-minutes in all the Tide offense was out-of-synch all afternoon, and Steele's absence was best-reflected by the 21 Alabama turnovers. By contrast State misplayed the ball only a dozen times, well under their season average.
Stansbury downplayed what Alabama was missing with Steele sidelined. "He's a great player, but it's not the first time they've played without him. They've got a lot of good players. But that's the way it goes sometimes."
Things went pretty well for Alabama early as they hit five of their first six shots. Postman Jermareo Davidson had his way initially, scoring inside and out as the Tide went ahead 10-5. But things changed as soon as Hendrix drew his second personal at 16:08, trying to check Rhodes.
"That was my gameplan," Rhodes said. "I just knew I had to do him like Big Baby (LSU center Glen Davis), keep him from getting the ball, take it to him early and get him in foul trouble. It worked." Rhodes also blocked consecutive shots to get State's transition game going with Slater sinking a threeball and Reg Delk finishing a fastbreak for a 10-10 tie.
Alabama was able to go up 15-14 on a Davidson free throw, but when he missed the second the Tide was caught flat-footed for a Delk breakaway, layup, foul and three-point play at 10:03 to put Mississippi State in front for the first time. It was a lead they never lost, too, as Alabama self-destructed repeatedly no matter who was handling the ball.
The Bulldogs took advantage to gradually extend the lead with Rhodes scoring twice and Varnado converting a rebound for a 29-20 bulge. Alabama got back within 36-29 on a Davidson roller, but again aided by errors State finished this half strong with Hansbrough draining an open trey and Varnado scoring a rebound for a 41-29 intermission advantage.
How much difference Hendrix might have made in the first half was obvious early in the second as he powered for a couple of buckets. With Brandon Hollinger connecting on consecutive treys Alabama abruptly cut their deficit to 43-41 in barely three minutes.
"Coach called timeout and told us we have to pick it up, the game wasn't over," said Gordon. "We came out and shared the ball like we did the first half, started making pays and knocking down shots." Beginning with Gordon drawing coverage for a kick-out that Reg Delk drained for three points.
It was the start of a Bulldog runaway, a 39-9 stretch covering over a dozen minutes. In seven-straight of those Alabama didn't get a basket of any sort, while State shredded Tide attempts at both zoning and manning-up. Rhodes scored on a cutter, then followed suit to feed Slater for a similar layup that had Gottfried calling for time down 55-43. He could only halt the clock, not the onslaught as the Bulldogs reeled off another nine points—five by Hansbrough--before Davidson free throws at 9:58 ended UA's scoreless streak.
The Bulldogs didn't slow their pace until running their lead out to 82-50 as Hansbrough not only beat the shot clock but banked in 24-foot chest-shot at 4:32. "You didn't hear me call bank?" he quipped later. "I guess you weren't listening!" Stansbury still waited until two minutes for any bench-clearing, assuring a healthy margin of victory.
Davidson finished with a team-best 16 points, forward Alonzo Gee added 13, Hollinger 11 and both Hendrix and Justin Tubbs ten. But the 25 turnovers told Alabama's real story, as did Steele sitting out the regular-season ender. "We are a different team without him," Gottfried said. "He's an all-American type player. We are beating a dead horse about this, though, we just can't fold the tents and go home."
Instead Alabama goes to Atlanta for a 1:00 Thursday meeting with East #4 seed Kentucky while the Bulldogs await the winner. Rhodes forecast an Alabama win, because "They want to see us again." Another bold comment, but then this day Rhodes could afford to speak freely. And he said State has to get ready for a SEC Tournament with higher stakes than any Division title.
"It's going to be tough because all the teams are great, top to bottom," Rhodes said. "We can't go in thinking we're going to beat up on everybody." Besides, he said, State has a lot of work ahead if they are to have any shot at a NCAA bid. The consensus is at least two wins are needed to merit serious consideration. And, "If we want to go to the (SECT) championship we've got to get two wins," Rhodes pointed out.
But for one Sunday the Bulldogs could celebrate a bit. Including elder Dog Slater, who along with fellow senior Piotr Stelmach are the only MSU players left from the 2004 SEC Championship squad. No wonder Slater wanted last snip of this net. "This is sweet," he said. "All the other guys are running around like chickens with their heads cut off."