They saw a (Mississippi) State team glad to be back home and back in a real game. Not merely to put behind them a 1-2 showing at the Anaheim Classic, either, but because playing ball was probably less stressful than the practices Coach Rick Stansbury put his squad through during the ‘open' week. In fact, center Jarvis Varnado thought the grueling week-day work might have contributed to a sluggish Saturday. "We had hard practice and didn't come out with the energy we needed." His coach seemed to concur.
"I'm not sure we had the zip you really need for forty minutes," Stansbury said. Still State had more than enough zap to take care of the out-manned Racers, nowhere more so than in the post where Charles Rhodes put on a 22-point show. The senior forward/center hit eight of his 14 shots, and coming after his 25-point output against Miami on Sunday it gave Rhodes consecutive 20-point games for the first time since his sophomore season.
"It just showed I'm getting more aggressive," Rhodes said. "I don't like to lose so that's why I'm stepping up and taking more shots."
Guards Gordon and Barry Stewart had 15 and 14 points in the win. State's starting fivesome combined for 55% shooting, and Stewart and backcourt cohort Ben Hansbrough were 4-of-8 from the three-point line. In fact the five starters outscored Murray State's entire team by a point. Yet as Stansbury said, all were playing off Rhodes' work inside. "We made a few adjustments to get the ball to Charles," the coach said.
"We did a few things different in our offense," Stewart confirmed. "We had a lot of practice time and worked on a few things and got the ball moving. It seemed we got the ball moving inside-out."
A classic sort of three-point play by Hansbrough got State on the board first, but the Racers were a bit more efficient early and led 7-5 before Rhodes took charge working in more of a motion-style offense. His free throws tied the score, and diving for a loose ball under his goal set up Stewart's go-ahead jumper. Rhodes dunked on a break and scored a rebound.
It was still a one-basket game when the rest of the Dogs picked up their games, as the next five MSU baskets were scored by a different shooter including a Hansbrough trey for a 22-13 advantage. Still it took consecutive scores from Stewart, a trey off the pull-up and fast-break drive to draw a timeout by Murray State at 6:28 with the margin up to 29-15. It wasn't just sharing the ball on the offensive end that helped State blow it open, as the defensive intensity picked up. The Racers burned more clock working for shots that didn't come open, forcing lower-percentage attempts that mostly missed.
The lead reached 18 on a Varnado tip-in before Murray's Danero Thomas bombed a pre-horn trey for the 39-24 halftime difference. The real difference was in shooting, with State making almost 58% compared to 32% by Murray State. Again, a week's practice showed. "Our past few games the assist-and-turnover ratio wasn't too good," Stewart said. "I think the team did a good job seeing the extra man wide-open."
The Racers picked up their pace out of the locker room with consecutive layups, and a three-ball by Danero made the margin 41-31. Gordon forced a layup and after Varnado swatted a shot at one end Rhodes dunked at the other. That series also saw Murray's Thomas go down holding the right knee.
Even without him, the Racers managed to get their deficit into single-digits on an open trey and breakaway dunk at 17:05, for a 47-38 scoreboard. But that was as close as the visitors were going to make this, as the Bulldog answered with a 13-2 run. Hansbrough tossed in one trey and Stewart stuck another from the right corner over Murray's zone. When Rhodes got a roller to drop it was a 60-40 count with a dozen minutes left to run out.
And, for Stansbury to use a variety of lineups the rest of the way which kept things from turning into a total blowout. "I tried to play a lot of different people today, to get them some minutes." State's lead got no lower than 16 points, 75-59, and Rhodes picked up his last points on free throws at four minutes before taking a bow and seat.
Racer postman Tony Easley topped his team with 17 points, many off putbacks in the late going, while Thomas had14 points and Ray George 11 off the bench. State came out better on the boards 36-29, and of more interest to Stansbury gave up just three offensive rebounds in the second half. Varnado had a MSU-best seventeen rebounds and blocked three shots.
Because of final fall exams the Bulldogs now have another week without a game, though not without work on the court and off it. The return to The Hump next Saturday at 2:00 to face Southeastern Louisiana, and Rhodes said State will be ready…if not rested.
"It was real intense this week. And I'm sure it's still going to be intense because we don't play against until Saturday. But that's a lot of practice time we need."