"We must lead the nation in close games we let slip away," said senior forward Charles Rhodes after a third defeat in the waning minutes. "We keep on giving up these close games and I know we're way better than that."
This setback galled the Dogs more than the others, though, as they had both a lead and the ball and an excellent opportunity at a ‘status' success. Only, the Hurricanes failed to cooperate. "I guess we found out why they're 9-0," MSU Coach Rick Stansbury said. "The last 3:40, give Miami credit. They stepped up and made plays when they had to make them."
Nobody stepped up more than McClinton, who didn't just lead the game in scoring with 29 points. He literally took the evening over in that final stretch, sticking consecutive three-pointers to regain a lead and a third trey at 1:26 to give Miami control. He also accounted for the icing free throws at 28 seconds, and was the only ‘Cane in double-digits.
"We stayed together, we fought hard and got the W," McClinton said. "It's definitely a confidence booster."
For their part the Bulldogs had their confidence busted. "I thought we had it won," said guard Jamont Gordon, who had a dominating stretch of his own in the second half to put Mississippi State in position to win it. Gordon scored 18 points with a team-best nine rebounds and five assists. But the junior point guard also went scoreless the last eight minutes with a couple of ill-timed turnovers. And McClinton's clutch trio of treys? "It wasn't any fun because I was the guy guarding him," Gordon said. "I did my best to contain him, I was playing him for the drive and he made big shots."
The Hurricanes did try the drive most of the evening, playing into State's plans…and Jarvis Varnado's hands. The sophomore center set a Bulldog record with 10 blocked shots, breaking the mark of eight shared by Tyrone Washington and Erick Dampier. Varnado and Rhodes did a respectable job disrupting Miami's post plans and had seven rebounds each. But that only forced the ‘Canes to rely on McClinton and fellow guard James Dews for five and three treys respectively.
State also shot the longball with one by Gordon and five from guard Barry Stewart who finished with 18 points also. But guard Ben Hansbrough couldn't connect on any of his eight tries from the arc and Phil Turner was 0-of-2 off the bench. Yet the Bulldogs should have been able to survive even this. "There were a lot of turning points," Stansbury said.
"It's obvious, up five shooting 1-and-1 with 3:40 to go, you have to win that basketball game. You can call it get away, call it whatever you want, but you have to win that basketball game."
From the tip Miami was mixing up the defensive looks, switching from man to zone and back practically every trip. The Bulldogs had little luck against either scheme initially with 3-of-12 shooting through eight minutes. That included five misses in six trey-tries, the only make by Stewart at 14:34. The Hurricanes were more patient and effective, and long shots by Dews and McClinton produced a 12-5 lead.
"You try to do something you don't have to change very time and get a little rhythm, they kept us off-pace a bunch," Stansbury said. "We didn't do a great job continually adjusting, and we didn't want to." What the Dogs decided to do was attack the goal directly and that worked much better as Rhodes and Gordon scored driving buckets. When Miami sagged a bit Stewart was able to connect on another three-pointer for MSU's first lead, 18-17.
Gordon scored on two more drives, around a full-court show by Varnado with a block on one end and fastbreak dunk on the other. Still it was only a 28-27 Bulldog halftime lead after UM center Anthony King boarded and scored before the horn.
Four minutes into the next half the lead had flipped four times with a couple of ties tossed in. The teams even matched missed free shots (State's first charity chance of the night came only at 17:12 of the second period), though had they hit both boards better the Bulldogs could have taken charge. Gordon certainly tried to, scoring eight-straight points before feeding Stewart for an open trey. In another sequence he flew in for a slam, then drew a charge off McClinton to negate a made basket. Meanwhile the Hurricanes kept trying for layups and Varnado kept swatting them away.
It was a 56-51 difference after a Stewart three-pointer and Rhodes was at the stripe with a 1-and-1 at 3:36. "It was a crucial situation," Stansbury said. All the moreso as Rhodes missed the first chance, Miami boarded, and a dozen seconds later McClinton stuck a tough trey on the move. After a Gordon turnover the Hurricane guard shook free for an even longer try that swished at 2:42. The Bulldogs did get a lead back after calling time with Rhodes making both ends of a 1-and-1.
But McClinton got off another rainbow over Gordon. And after Hansbrough missed from the arc Dwayne Collins and then McClinton both converted their free throws for all the scoring needed. All Stansbury could do was look back at that crucial situation. "From that point on we just weren't very good. We had a charging foul, a couple of quick shots, two more missed 1-and-1s. In these games you just can't have those against an opponent like Miami."
"Our kids just found a way," Miami Coach Frank Haith said. "We made plays. At one point I thought Gordon was going to take the game over, single-handedly he kept them in the game."
But in the crunch the Bulldogs didn't get the needed rebounds—Miami was down three boards at halftime but ended up with a 43-40 margin for the game—and forced some things on offense that didn't pan out. Which was all the opening McClinton needed to put his stamp on the success.
"Give him credit, he made big shots," Stansbury said. "I don't know if he had easy shots."
The Bulldogs don't have anything easy ahead, either. They leave Friday for a weekend game in Mobile, against host South Alabama in the Coors Classic (7:00 Saturday). Then it's off on a western road trip with matchups at Loyola-Marymount on December 19 and at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi on the 21st before a brief Christmas break. Though they're far from punching any panic button, the Bulldogs realize they've already given away as many wins and as much margin in the big season picture as they can afford without crippling post-season opportunity.
"We just have to learn how to close out games," Varnado said. "That is it plain and simple. We just have to learn how to close out games."