Gordon and Rhodes have been the big Bulldog guns all season and dominated this evening even more than usual. But their nickname only came to media notice after Rhodes put up 21 points and Gordon 18 in a particularly productive partnership. "It's the pick-and-roll we run," Rhodes said. "We got it this summer and it stuck, from teammates because we used to kill ‘em."
Together or separately the duo were deadly to the Devils, who had few answers for them either inside or outside. Rhodes essentially jump-started State's offense in the early minutes, then Gordon effectively settled things with a strong spurt of his own before halftime. By then the outcome was obvious to all, the 5,501 crowd at The Hump and the regional TV audience.
Coach Rick Stansbury was quickly satisfied his squad would show no hangovers from their SEC Tournament semifinal loss nor failure to earn a NCAA bid. "We're glad to get that first game behind us. We were a little concerned, how are you going to respond. I thought our kids came out the way you want them to respond, we came out and played extremely hard."
Nor did the Dogs take their guests too lightly. Mississippi Valley State had won the regular-season championship of the Southwestern Athletic Conference and came with a reputation for defense and discipline. Rhodes, a Jackson native, also knew to expect plenty of motivation from the visiting side.
"We knew Valley was going to play us hard because of state pride. We never did look at it as a team we could just run over. They showed us that for a couple of minutes. But we glued together and got the victory."
‘Bread' Gordon was also the glue-guy in State's offensive gameplan. The team's leading scorer did not take a shot for almost nine minutes, instead getting the ball to people in place where they could produce. "I tried to get everybody involved early, usually when I don't I think they get a little down so tonight I tried to change that so they could play hard all through the game. I know I can get a shot any time so I tried to get everybody the ball."
Mostly, to 'Butter' Rhodes. "Tonight the team looked for me more," he said. Starting with a three-point power play Rhodes scored nine of State's first 14 points. Nor did he ignore defense, swatting two of Valley's first five shots—all missed. The Devils tried to match muscle at first and Rhodes and center Jefferey Price drew a warning from officials about exchanges of forearms and elbows.
Gordon not only got the ball to his big partner but by driving created kick-outs for open threeballs from Reginald Delk and Barry Stewart as State bolted to a 18-5 lead before Valley could call for time. Or mercy. Gordon had four official assists before taking, and making, his own first shot, a three-pointer for a 21-7 tally. Devil guard Carl Lucas tried to keep his side in contention by scoring eight of MVSU's first ten points, and buckets by Ronald Alexander and Stanford Speech cut their deficit to seven as the Bulldogs went a five-minute span with just one more score.
"If we make shots like we normally do the game could have really gotten out of hand," Stansbury said. "We got it to the rim on the dribble and the post with Charles, we just didn't' shoot too well on three-pointers."
It was merely a minor detail because Gordon dominated the rest of the half, scoring four times—once from the arc—and kicking out to guard Ben Hansbrough for his own trey and a 20-point bulge. When his heave from the far foul line didn't go at the buzzer it was almost a surprise as Gordon had a dozen points already and his team a 40-24 lead.
Valley was able to snip some off their deficit with a few quick second-half scores but never got closer than 11 points. When the Dogs really wanted to defend they did, including a half-court trap and forced turnover so close to Coach James Green that his frustrated objections drew a technical at 16:34. State was able to keep a double-digit difference by matching baskets until midway of the period, then reel off nine fast points with a Barry Stewart bomb making it 68-47 at 7:30.
A three-point play by Jarvis Varnado and Rhodes free throws pushed the lead out to 80-52 with 3:29 left. Rhodes and Gordon took their seats at that stoppage, and Stansbury was able to empty the bench. Trash-time also allowed Valley to score some meaningless baskets including consecutive slams by Lucas off errors, padding his stat sheet. He finished with a game-best 22 points but the lone Devil in double-digits. MVSU's whole starting lineup only scored 22 points.
Rhodes shot 6-of-7 in the first half and 8-of-12 for the game, getting free throws in the second period. It was a far more effective effort than his 0-of-5 shooting in the SEC semifinal. "I think I was just peed-off from the game against Arkansas. That game was still in the back of my mind and I felt I was a big factor in that loss."
Gordon had a team-best nine rebounds to go with his points and eight assists. A second career ‘triple-double' might have been in reach had he put in more than 29 minutes, but it was unnecessary this evening. "We played real good tonight," the soph said. Hansbrough finished with 15 points off the bench and two of State's seven treys.
Valley Coach Green, who brought Southern Mississippi to The Hump for another first-round NIT loss back in 2001, said Rhodes and Gordon were too much for the Devils to handle. "When you try to do something to stop those two you get their wing guys stepping up and making baskets. It was a long night for us trying to match up with them." Still Green was pleased with MVSU's season as a whole, though a loss in the SWAC finals kept his squad from playing in the NCAAs.
"We played hard, we had a good season and came a long way to finish first in the SWAC after being picked last."
For the Bulldogs the post-season has just begun as they prepare for Saturday's 11:00am contest and ESPN national telecast. They won't know the opponent until tomorrow night, but State players do understand what butters the bread this time of year.
"We have homecourt advantage and these teams have to come into the Hump to try to get a win, which is going to be very hard," said Rhodes. "We've got two more games to be worried about to get to New York."