"I didn't want to call it a must-win game," Coach Rick Stansbury said. "We knew this, we had to make a statement game and this was the last quality non-conference opponent we had." The Big XII Tigers, who defeated the Bulldogs last year in Columbia, left Starkville 9-5.
State actually made a couple of strong statements this game. Star forward Charles Rhodes could only cheer Sunday, sidelined by a sprained ankle, so the Bulldogs opted to play with a small lineup that had freshman guard Phil Turner taking the place of an All-SEC senior. Next, Stansbury's team had to survive an often-brilliant offensive afternoon by Tiger guard Matt Lawrence, who compiled a game-best 28 points with six three-pointers tossed in from all around the arc.
But more than anything the Dogs had to overcome their own recent history of crumbling under second-half pressures against ‘prime' non-conference guests. Specifically, Clemson and Miami, who both played a bit better and smarter down the stretch(es) to leave The Hump winners. So when a ten-point margin turned into a one-point Missouri lead with nine minutes showing on the second half clock there was inevitable tension both on the MSU bench and among the 5,102 watching in-person.
"We've had two previous games like this that," said Stansbury. The third time was more charming though as Mississippi State changed their pace. "I think this was a turnaround for us, to be really honest," said guard Ben Hansbrough, who had the three-point bucket that regained a lead and MSU momentum. "We were clutch, we didn't turn the ball over, we scored, we made big plays. And we played together as a team."
"So many times we've been close and haven't pulled it out," guard Barry Stewart said. "When it got tight we refused to lose."
"Naturally we're happy, but the way we won the game was so special," Stansbury said. "It wasn't always pretty, Missouri isn't going to let you play pretty, but we found a way to make the plays when we had to. And we survived an unbelievable shooting effort by the Lawrence kid."
And, the absence of Rhodes' points and presence in the paint. Yet if State was going to court a four-guard lineup against anyone from a major conference, Missouri ironically was maybe the best matchup available. The Tigers were not all that tall themselves, and prefer playing at a relentless, even reckless pace on both ends of the floor. So the Bulldogs not only had few fears of size mis-matches, but the extra ball-handler and shooter was a good counter to Missouri's tempo and pressure.
"They wanted to run, we love to run," said guard Phil Turner, the fourth guard in this lineup. "It was great for us." And while Turner only took Rhodes' slot, not his actual court-spot, State also owns the best ‘power guard' around in Gordon. "I played four the whole game!" he grinned, only slightly exaggerating. The junior did take enough turns at his typical point guard spot to net five assists, but most of his 20 points and all eight rebounds—as well as two blocks—came with Gordon posting or passing through the lane.
This left off-guard Stewart to take the point which the soph did quite well under the pressures. "I tried to direct the offense, get everybody involved, and take the open shot if it was there." He did it all, producing a career-high seven assists but also sticking three treys and notching a team-high 24 points. Turner took advantage of 34 minutes action to get his first collegiate double-double with 12 points and a startling ten rebounds.
Hansbrough added 15 points and eight rebounds, taking more pleasure than anyone in the process. "It was personal, obviously Missouri is where I come from and I just really wanted to beat them. Bad."
Early on things didn't go good for the Dogs as Lawrence owned the initial ‘quarter' of play, scoring 15 of Missouri's first 20 points via six-of-seven shooting. Three of the buckets came off in-bounds passes. But when Lawrence had to take a break the Tiger offense broke down with three scoreless minutes. It was also the break State needed to begin a surge starting with sub-center Brian Johnson's rebound basket.
Having wasted too many trips on rushed, and missed, three-point attempts, the Bulldogs began to run actual offensive sets. "We spread the floor out," Hansbrough said. "We knew we had to some things without Charles, we had to rebound and get the inside going. We just made adjustments." This let Gordon shake man-coverage for a couple of easy baskets, before a tougher hanging drive and layup.
"They gave me the ball and I put it in," Gordon said. "Suddenly State was in front 24-21 and the Tigers calling for time…and, subbing Lawrence back in at 8:13. His return didn't pay off immediately though as the Dogs kept surging and twice Missouri was called for charging.
Stewart stuck a three-ball and Hansbrough finished a fastbreak. When Stewart converted a pair of free shots State was in front 35-25. Missouri did respond with their own sprint, pulling within 35-34 on Hannah free throws at 2:24. Stewart and Hansbrough were left open beyond the Tiger zone-set for made-threes to give the Bulldogs a 41-38 margin at intermission.
A stolen rebound and layup by DeMarre Carroll did even the second-half score at 41-41, and Leo Lyons had an open jumper for the lead. It missed, and while the Dogs did as well on the other end center Jarvis Varnado was there for a putback and lead State maintained. And, for a while, expanded with Stewart converting consecutive fastbreaks and driving solo for a reverse layup. It was Gordon's running bucket stretching State's advantage to 56-44.
Lawrence, who'd scored the last Missouri points at 17:14, ended his team's drought with a lane-jumper at 13:28. It put life back in the Tigers as they clawed back within a basket at 11:00, tied it up 57-57 by 10:00 on a Hannah trey, and took a 60-59 lead a 8:58 on another bomb by Hannah.
It was Hansbrough rattling in a corner-three at 8:38 to stop Missouri's momentum; it was Stewart hammering home a 25-footer for a 71-66 lead that put the Bulldogs in control. "That's something we've been working on after practice and we both stepped up," Hansbrough said. The clincher came as, with the shot clock running out, Turner missed a forced trey but was fouled by Hannah and cashed in two free chances. Next time down the same situation developed, only on the opposite wing and with Stewart drawing contact on a trey-try. He made good on all three for a 78-69 margin, and Gordon ended the afternoon with a running dunk.
Stansbury was justifiably proud of the results, particularly that the all-underclassman backcourt ended with a positive assist/turnover rate and only had one true giveaway against the press. "It's a huge stat. We found a way to shoot above 50%, and out-rebound them (43-33) with a small lineup."
And, to do what the Dogs failed to previously. "We've been losing some close games, but we finished this one out," he said. "It's definitely a big win as far as non-conference games."
Mississippi State has one remaining non-SEC contest to play, Saturday afternoon against Lafayette College in Jackson. Game-time is 2:00 in the Mississippi Coliseum. Stansbury isn't sure that Rhodes will be full-strength by the weekend, but knows the senior will do anything possible to be on-court one last time as a Bulldog in his home town.
The SEC season tips off January 9 at Louisiana State, as the Bulldogs won't be back on their home court again until January 12 when Georgia comes to town.