SAME STATE, DIFFERENT WORLDS: Though the schools are barely two hours apart, on the same highway in fact, Mississippi State and Mississippi Valley State have now met just twice on hardwood. Before last night's NIT game the schools had previously played in November 2000 with State taking a 93-58 win.
And Mississippi State has never played either of the possible second-round opponents, Bradley nor Providence.
With the win State is now 16-2 in all games against the SWAC. Both losses were to Alcorn State, both in 1979 in March and then in November. Stansbury is 9-0 against SWAC squads.
NO DÉJÀ VU HERE: The day before the game, G Dietric Slater was asked if he had heard of that 1979 NIT game when State was stunned at The Hump by Alcorn State. Slater surprised the reporter. "We should take this game serious, because I can remember when Mississippi State played Alcorn, we were up like ten with a minute-and-a-half left and they had a full-court press and they won the game. I can remember that game."
That would have been difficult seeing how Slater was not born until 1984. After the game he clarified his comment. "My (high school) coach came to the game. He filmed it, and showed it to us last year. Thus Slater's feeling of witnessing the event and the frustration in his "we" statement. Slater also said that his old coach called him Monday to remind him of that long-ago defeat.
His current coaches used that subject for motivation, too. "They gave us an article (on that game) the other day with the scouting report so everybody could kind of know what they were going to be like."
ON THE LINE: As a freshman, G Jamont Gordon was not one of the more reliable free-throw shooters on the squad with a 65% accuracy. He's upgraded his efficiency this year to over 70% and in SEC play was even better at 75%.
So after Valley Coach James Green earned a technical foul in the second half, when a Valley guard was double-trapped into a travel call, Gordon was told to take the two free shots. Except he missed both, his only attempts all night. Gordon made up for it promptly though with a typical strong move at the goal for a layup.
Gordon got that call not just because he was on-court at the time but because he has by far the most stripe-experience on this squad. The soph has shot 203 free throws this year; next-highest is Rhodes with 129. In fact Gordon has almost as many attempts as Rhodes, Jarvis Varnado, and Vernon Goodridge, the three Dogs who play in the post, combined. Those three have taken 214 attempts at the stripe, making 133 compared to Gordon's 142 hits.
NO HARD FEELINGS: Mississippi Valley State also brought a good contingent to town. "We had some of our fans here," noted Devil Coach James Green, who had been to The Hump for NIT play before in 2001 with Southern Mississippi. Not just fans but a band, which entertained all fans of either team in their turns to toot. With the Bulldog dominating play the home crowd was naturally in a more generous mood and in the second half they acknowledged both the MVSU band as well as some impromptu dance moves by a few visitors in the stands. Attempts by some MSU students to match the performance were in complete inverse-quality to what was happening on the court.
Some good feelings faded though when Devil center Ronald Alexander fouled Ben Hansbrough hard on a breakaway at 4:17. The personal, his fifth, was ruled intentional, and Hansbrough hit both free throws while Alexander played with the home crowd, pretending to take a seat repeatedly. That even had Green grinning for a moment.
Valley earned another intentional foul in the last two minutes when center Vernon Goodridge was caught from behind trying for a layup. These plays showed the wisdom of going with reserves in the final stretch to prevent injuries.
Afterwards Green explained. "I want to apologize on behalf of my players on some of the fouls that were called. They were definitely not trying to hurt anybody. I just wanted to make sure everyone understands that, that is not the kind of players we have on our team. They (the Bulldogs) were obviously just bigger and stronger around the basket and our guys were trying to be aggressive but not hurt anybody."
GOTTA BE THE SHOES PART 2: Saturday at the SEC Tournament, Stansbury surprised observers by coming to court in white adidas sneakers instead of the usual black slip-ons. He explained the shoes were to protect the bruised right heel Stansbury incurred during a February game and that he aggravated at the end of regulation in State's win over Kentucky. "These were much more comfortable, particularly trying to get the officials' attention," he said.
Stansbury was still in sneakers Tuesday, but this time found some darker kicks to wear with the charcoal suit. And the coach had little reason to stomp the court in this game as State never trailed and were rarely pushed hard.
BASKETBALL BRUNCH: The Bulldogs not only get to continue NIT play but do so at home, by virtue of their #1 seeding in the eight-team North Regional. The label clearly has little to do with geography of course. Prior to tipoff the expectation was that with a win State would play Saturday at 1:00pm, but by halftime ESPN had arranged for a change. Round-two is at 11:00am now with national telecast on the main network.
Stansbury doesn't mind a morning tip-off. "Do you have a choice? " he quipped. No, as TV is setting this schedule with the NIT. And that makes a ‘basketball brunch' worthwhile to the Bulldogs. "We like it because it's ESPN, we're at home," said Stansbury. "I know we play a very good team. Bradley is first in the nation in three-point shooting. Providence is out of the Big East and there are no easy teams out of the Big East. But we'll be ready to play whoever it is Saturday morning."
MSU officials were pleased with the Tuesday night turnout, too, especially considering the short notice after Sunday's announcement. The Ticket Office reported sales of over 5,000 by 5:00 when they moved to the Coliseum office. The final tally was 5,501 with all tickets paid, including students. And while this wasn't much over half-capacity the atmosphere made up for empty seats.
"We had a great crowd tonight," Stansbury said, "a loud crowd, and I expect more for Saturday. When we have a big crowd this is a difficult place to play. It was a great crowd for a Tuesday night in the first game of the NIT."
Of course spring break impacted both the crowd and game staffing, with many student workers gone from town. The Pom Squad was under half-strength, the cheerleaders a bit over 50%, and not enough band members came back to fill two rows. Still enthusiasm made up for much of that and more folk are anticipated to be in the house Saturday. And even with a short-handed staff game operations went smoothly, save for when the just-provided NIT floor logo began peeling immediately and had to be removed less than five minutes after tipoff.
ROOKIE REPORT: He's stayed low-key but G Ben Hansbrough has become a big part of the Bulldog offense. The freshman has scored double-digits in the last four games and his 15 points last night were the most since Hansbrough torched Texas A&M-CC (now in the NCAAs) for 23 points.
Hansbrough has also thrown in nine treys in these four games, three of them State wins. "I've just been working on my game on my own, I've been capable of doing that all year," he said.
But there is more to the rookies game than gunning from long range. Hansbrough also has averaged four rebounds in this stretch. "He's getting a little bit of swagger about him and more confidence," said Stansbury. "And he's fearless. He uses his body to go to the hole and he finishes plays."
RECORD BOOK: Mississippi State has now hosted five NIT games with a 3-2 record. Bulldog teams are 4-5 in all NIT action since 1979.
EASY NIGHT'S WORK: The 29 minutes Jamont Gordon played was his shortest game's work since January 10, when Stansbury sat the soph for half of the Ole Miss home game. In fact Gordon had not played under 30 minutes since January 20 in a home win over Auburn.
But he put his court-time to good use with 18 points, nine rebounds, and eight assists. The eight minutes of the second half Gordon did not play could obviously have been utilized to give him a shot at his second ‘triple-double' of the season. Gordon did the trick, only the second Dog ever to do so, in the home win over Vanderbilt when he had 15 points, 12 rebounds, and ten assists.
He wasn't the big Dog of the night, though, as Rhodes had 21 points. "When your captains play like that it's easy for the rest of your team to feed off that," Stansbury said. "They both had great stats."