"No question he changes things around that rim," said Coach Rick Stansbury, whose Bulldog scored a sixth-straight win for a 11-5 overall record and 2-0 SEC mark. Georgia's Bulldogs left 9-5, 0-1.
And, still with no answer to Mississippi State's big Dog under the basket. The visiting Dogs ended up shooting under 25% for the afternoon game, missing 49 field-shots. Besides the ten blocked by Varnado—including three in a single six-second span—at least a dozen more attempts were obviously altered off the shooter's hands by fear of rejection.
"It ain't too bad having a guy 6-9 who can block shots like that," guard Barry Stewart said. "It's not every day a guy gets ten blocks in a game…besides him!" Without leaving the lane Varnado also made it easier for State's four-guard lineup to defend Georgia shooters all over. Especially at the arc where UG went just 3-of-17.
"You can do some things when you've got a guy at the hole who can protect it," Stansbury said. Varnado wasn't the only Dog getting in on the block party, as three teammates had two swats each. That included All-SEC forward Charles Rhodes, making his return after a three-game layoff with an ankle injury. He scored eight points, six-straight in the second half, with three rebounds before having to leave with the ankle re-turned.
"Obviously the biggest factor in the game was their ability to block shots," Georgia Coach Dennis Felton said. "I have never been involved in a game like that where there are so many blocked shots."
Guard Jamont Gordon was the only MSU Bulldog in double-figures scoring with 15 points, along with nine rebounds. Stewart added nine and Phil Turner seven with a surprising (for a 6-3 guard) nine boards. Georgia actually had more total rebounds, 44 to 41, but much of that was the result of recovering Varnado blocks and trying again…usually to no good purpose.
UG guard Sundiata Gaines had 15 points and guard Corey Butler nine.
It took all of 11 seconds for Varnado to show he had come to play ball by scoring the game's first points, three of them, with a layup and foul shot. State played decent defense from the tip, but Georgia certainly helped with awful offense and missed the first six shots whether challenged or not. Not until forward Jeremy Price got a layup to drop at 17:15 did the UG Dogs get on the scoreboard. The home team wasn't exactly lighting it up either, but did take advantage of turnovers to scratch out some baskets.
"They pressed us a lot, they switched defenses, so we had to slow down and rotate the ball and take good shots," said Gordon.
Still it was Georgia's Billy Humphrey that got the first long-shot of the day to fall after a combined ten misses. Emblematic of the half's mutual inefficiency, both teams were caught by the shot clock and at the eight-minute TV break it was still just a 14-9 scoreboard. "It was a tough stretch, none of us could get anything to fall," Stewart said. When the pace finally picked up things turned a bit Georgia's favor as Gaines asserted himself with a three and two other jumpers that evened the tally. Butler's running jumper at 3:13 gave UG their first lead, 22-20.
The guests were still up a point when Rhodes finally took a shot. A sure one, too, a double-hand dunk at 1:14. Gordon slammed one himself so State could take a 27-24 lead into the locker room. Butler quickly erased that with consecutive buckets to open the new half. Meanwhile Varnado took a hard spill at one end, then stumbled on the other and came up limping. It was two more series before an official intentionally stopped play so the hurting center could sit down, as the other nine on-court were playing breakneck end-to-end with no points produced.
"We didn't want to get in physical match with them," Stansbury said. "We had a tough time in half-court offense and when they got into us it make it difficult to execute with any consistency at all."
It took Hansbrough firing off the move and beyond the arc for three—his team's first in 11 tries--to get State back in front, then Turner hammering home consecutive bombs from almost the same spot for a 37-28 score. "I had a bigger guy guarding me, he couldn't keep up with my quickness and sagged off," Turner said. "I tried to just do what I do, shoot the basketball."
"Outrageous shots," Felton called them. The treys had Georgia calling for time; when play resumed Rhodes coaxed in a reverse-layup, followed by a nice turn-around jumper. Concerns about rust were answered as finished a fastbreak, a six-point surge for a 43-30 scoreboard.
Georgia wasn't entirely done though, and aided by MSU miscues against the extended zone defense along with some Butler baskets the guest Dogs crawled back within 45-39. "We probably let up a little bit," Stansbury said. "Some fatigue set in because I didn't sub a lot." And Rhodes also re-injured the ankle fouling Gaines, forcing Varnado back into action. "I was ready to come back," he said.
His presence factored into some hesitant Georgia shots and three-straight misses. For their part State's Dogs rushed some longballs but at 5:21 backup guard Riley Benock was able to stick one from the corner. His trey, followed by a pair of Varnado blocks, interrupted Georgia's chance of a real rally just long enough.
Because the visitors were still able to get back within 50-44 after an intentional foul on Gordon, with possession. Varnado blocked Gaines' driving attempt then dunked in the other goal off a Gordon feed. Free throws by Stewart and Benock sealed the deal.
"We just executed down the stretch," said Gordon. "We tried to be the tougher team on the floor."
"I have a lot more to be pleased with about this game than I have disappointment," said Felton. I thought we did a whole lot of things well, and we competed very well."
Georgia is back in competition Wednesday night, hosting Alabama; while Mississippi State stays home to take on visiting Kentucky in a Tuesday night contest. Stansbury wasn't sure Rhodes would play today, making the game-time decision after watching the senior warm-up. Then Rhodes came down wrong on the same ankle in the second half. "Where it will be Tuesday night I have no idea," the coach said. With the short turn-around Stansbury is also concerned about guard Ben Hansbrough's swollen right (shooting) hand, hurt early in the first half. "He played the whole game with it." Varnado's ankle is not expected to be an issue.