The coach also understands that his hot-and-cold team is warming to their task at the right time. With their win Mississippi State concluded the non-conference portion of the season and go into SEC season 9-5. The visiting Leopards left Jackson 8-6 after the first-ever meeting of the programs. It was State's seventh-straight win in games played in the Mississippi Coliseum, since 1985, though the 3,044 crowd was the smallest to watch one of the ‘home away from home contests.
Those who came were treated to play that alternated from entertaining to frustrating to ultimately dominating. Four Bulldogs notched double-digit points, with guard Ben Hansbrough sinking five three-balls for most of his 17 points. Center Jarvis Varnado was just a point behind but even more impressive overall, registering his career-first ‘double double' with 16 points and a dozen rebounds along with five of MSU's ten blocked shots.
"I just did what I had to do," the sophomore said. Varnado's contributions were that much more meaningful as for a second game State played without forward Charles Rhodes. The Jackson product had to miss his last chance to play in his home town with an ankle sprain. "The positive thing is we played well and had some guys step up and play above their level in his absence," Stansbury said.
Such as freshman guard Ravern Johnson with 11 points off the bench. The rookie said he was comfortable in the Coliseum. "It was like a homecoming for me," said the member of Coahoma County's high school championship teams. "This was basically our home gym because we played here every year." He not only felt at home, Johnson made himself at home around the basket instead of settling for jumpers. "I just came and did what I could do to help the team win."
Guard Jamont Gordon had 15 points with seven rebounds. All of State's scoring came from seven players.
The Leopards were led by guard Bilal Abdullah with 21 points, a dozen of that from the arc. That was much better than his 13.0-game average. But State could give up those points as the rest of the LC lineup was held mostly in-check. Particularly guard Andrew Brown, who came in averaging 17.7 points; he made only one basket all day and finished with three points. Forward Everest Schmidt had ten points.
Mississippi State had some worries about this matchup. The Leopards weren't all that athletic on the frontcourt, but they came in shooting almost 43% on three-pointers and averaging 79 points. And the biggest chunk of that came from the arc. Yet the Bulldogs counted on being able to play small, without Rhodes, and at least limit the perimeter threat because Varnado was backing everyone up in the lane.
"His presence down-low prevents a lot of help-defense," Stansbury said. "And it helps dismiss those three-point opportunities that would otherwise be there." It worked as Lafayette tried ‘only' 25 treys, well under their average; and made just six of these. The Bulldogs by contrast made nine treys. The lone down-side came in rebounding where Lafayette did get 21 offensive boards that provided much of their pointing.
Varnado's presence was made clear immediately with the game's first two buckets, while the first two Leopard shots were both swatted aside. After the rude welcome the guests did find some poise and stayed with State for a while, with a 9-7 score at 16:40. Then it was Varnado again asserting himself with a pair of rebound-putbacks while Gordon scored in transition.
At the same time the Leopards' offense was stifled, thanks to Varnado first. "Jarvis is very good at game-changing and protecting that basket," Stansbury said. With the shot-blocker sealing away the goal Lafayette couldn't choose to shoot jumpers; they had to, which made a difference. Aggressive guarding set up turnovers and a four-minute scoreless stretch.
By 6:38 State had pulled in front 33-13, and with just a bit better board-work on defense it could have been a blowout by halftime as Lafayette missed 18 of their first 23 shots. Only Abdullah kept his team in contention with enough baskets for a 37-25 intermission mark. That stretch coincided with one of the ‘lax' periods by the Bulldogs at each end.
And locker-room time was better-spent by the Leopards as they reeled off seven points in two minutes to have Stansbury calling for time. Three-point trips for Hansbrough and Stewart steadied State just a bit but Lafayette wasn't done and by 15:36 they were within 44-40 on an Abdullah layup.
It was veteran Gordon and pup Johnson who stemmed the assault offensively, particularly the freshman with consecutive hard-driving finishes to fastbreaks. His long-arm dunk had Mississippi State back in front 54-40. On the other end the Bulldogs had regained their defensive intensity, hassling Abdullah while other Leopards missed every field-shot for over eight minutes. All they had were free throws until Michael Gruner tipped in a miss at 7:50.
And that only got LC within 55-46. Less than two minutes later the Bulldogs were comfortably in front by 67-46 after Varnado completed a three-point play. State's lead peaked at 29 points before the obligatory late-game substitutions.
Stansbury couldn't be entirely content with the afternoon, because his team did not play an entirely consistent game. "I thought we had some spurts that we did not play well," he said. "But there were spurts we did well." And with more of the latter the Bulldogs did enough good stuff to take this final non-SEC contest.
But Wednesday evening could be another matter. Especially since Stansbury is not counting on having Rhodes available for the conference opener. Still the Dogs have won twice without the big Dog as other starters have picked up the slack and some bench-men become reliable providers. With consistency from all quarters, State can come away from their first league matchup with a win.
But, added the coach, "We can not have bad stretches."