Which was a fair summary of the entire evening as Mississippi State secured the success by coming through at the charity stripe…at least when it mattered. The SEC's tenth-worst foul shooting squad was only 17-of-33 at the foul stripe for the night but made good on 13 of the 18 attempts in the final three minutes for the margin of victory.
"We were 17-of-33, just picture if we had hit some of those," said Rhodes. "The game would have been over." As it was the game remained in question until Kentucky's forced field-goal tries failed and guards Jamont Gordon and Barry Stewart knocked down enough one-pointers to keep State unbeaten in SEC play at 3-0, 12-5 overall. Kentucky left 7-8 and 1-1 SEC. A less-than-capacity crowd of 8,787 and ESPN national audience watched State score a second-consecutive win over Kentucky, including last year's victory at the SEC Tournament, for the first time since 1962-63.
Varnado wasn't the big scorer of the night—three Dogs and three Wildcats had as many or more points. But the 6-9, 210-pounder was assuredly the game's dominant figure. He joined Lawrence Roberts (2004-05) and teammate Jamont Gordon (2006-07) as the only Bulldogs to get double-digits in three positive categories…and the first to do it by swatting shots.
"Any time you earn a triple-double is impressive," Coach Rick Stansbury said. "And to do that with blocked shots is even more impressive. Even better, he was able to play 36 minutes and only two fouls." This, after Varnado had to leave Saturday's game with Georgia with a turned ankle that kept him from getting the t-d.
Varnado, paired with Rhodes, were the center-pieces of State's defensive scheme that throttled Kentucky into 38.3% shooting. They limited leading Kat scorer, forward Patrick Patterson, to two points in the first half and ten total on 4-of-11 shooting. And backup big man Perry Stevenson got only two baskets before fouling out trying to attack MSU's pair in the paint.
"That was our gameplan," said Rhodes. "Their top three scorers are Patterson, (Joe) Crawford, and (Ramel) Bradley, and it was up to me and Jarvis to take care of Patterson. So we doubled him a couple of times, sometimes we came off him. We did a real good job."
Guards Bradley and Crawford did a very good job attempting to take up the slack with 22 and 20 points respectively. Crawford in particular tried to shoot his side all the way back with four of Kentucky's seven three-pointers. But too often he and Bradley were funneled towards the goal where Varnado was waiting and ready to reject. If they stayed back at the arc it took lots of passes and seconds for them to find open space for shooting.
"Coach (Phil) Cunningham did a great job preparing us for Bradley and Crawford," said guard Phil Turner. "We switched a lot for their screens, and did what we do best—defend and rebound." There were plenty of boards to recover and State won that stat, too, 40-33.
"Our guards had to pressure them so it wouldn't be so easy to throw it in to Patterson," said Varnado. "They did a good job of that."
Mississippi State had better offensive balance, with a game-best 24 points from Gordon. The junior guard had made just two treys in his last 16 tries, over five games; but this evening he found his stroke and was 5-of-7. "I think tonight was my night," said Gordon, who last March hit the buzzer-beating three to force overtime in State's win over Kentucky in Atlanta. "My jump shot was back on, I knew I was going to play a good game." Nine rebounds and five assists made it an even better game.
Rhodes provided 12 points, playing 30 minutes on an ankle re-injured Saturday that still hurt. "The doctor wanted me to stay off it, I wanted to help this team so much." Turner hit three treys and scored 11 points, and Stewart was a free throw away from giving State five double-digit Dogs. It wasn't a great shooting night overall at 43%, but the defense more than offset any issues there. And Mississippi State ended up with15 total blocked shots, exactly one-quarter of Kentucky's total 60 field goals fired.
State was also playing without guard Ben Hansbrough, sidelined this night and likely the next game with a broken middle-finger on the left hand. "We had to make some adjustments," said Stansbury, who moved Stewart to off-guard on the starting lineup and made liberal use of his bench in both halves to limit stress on his gimpy big men.
"I'm proud of our basketball team, because we ahd to make some adjustments," Stansbury said.
Bradley did net a five fast points as Kentucky took a 7-2 lead, before the Dogs finally got a longball to fall. Two in fact, by Turner and Gordon, for a MSU lead at 16:22. The advantage went from one side of the scoreboard to the other for three more minutes, until a couple of aggressive drives into the UK defense opened first Varnado and then backup center Brian Johnson for dunks and a 15-12 State lead.
Stansbury started subbing early yet whatever the lineup it played good enough extended defense to cramp the Kats' style inside. "We started doubling Patterson in the first half and he didn't really handle it too well," Varnado said. When the starters returned Rhodes escaped his man for a slam and 22-16 score that had Kentucky calling for time at 9:02. The talk did produce a Bradley basket but it would be four minutes before they could score anything again. And incredibly, at least to league long-timers, Mississippi State was not called for fouling a Wildcat until 6:08 of the half.
This despite the best defense of the season, which allowed the Bulldogs to survive a cold spell of their own with the lead just 24-20 at 4:23. But Kentucky was now dropping back nearer the goal, and kick-outs to Gordon and Turner resulted in consecutive threes and a 30-20 difference. "Coach never tells me not to shoot," Turner smiled.
Crawford cut it to 32-27 at intermission though with a couple of jumpers, and stuck another trey early in the next period. The Bulldogs were unfazed as Gordon struck for three and a 41-31 lead, and Crawford's try for a reverse layup was stuffed. Upon which UK Coach Billy Gillispie earned a technical, though Gordon missed both chances.
Turner's on-the-move three made it 45-33 at the 14:00 mark. Bradley cut it to 46-38 at the next media break, when State's starting lineup was reassembled. Gordon hit for three and fed Rhodes for a dunk, but Crawford matched that himself. He and Bradley kept the Kats in contention and even trimmed the deficit by finally scoring before State's defense could get set. Such as Bradley's reverse-layup for a 54-49 that now had Stansbury stopping the clock with 6:45 left on it.
Stewart didn't make the shot but was fouled on the designed play, and while he missed both freebies the guard came unhindered down the lane for the rebound and putback.
It wasn't a done deal yet as Patterson slapped in a rebound and Bradley slashed for a layup and 56-53 score. Three times the Wildcats had possession; twice Crawford was rejected by Varnado, and Bradley's long try to tie clanked. "I didn't have any fouls so I could play free!" he said. Varnado also drew an open-court foul, Stevenson's fifth personal, and this time he canned both chances. Bradley failed again at the arc and the Bulldogs began running some extra seconds before firing or being fouled.
And still the Wildcats weren't finished, manufacturing enough tough points to keep it a two- or three-shot game. Crawford's jumper cut it to 66-64 with 7.6 seconds left for something wild to happen. But Stewart slid just open enough to snare Riley Benock's in-bounds pass and draw the foul, canning both chances. He also stole the full-court heave and sealed the decision with one final free point.
"This was a tough loss for us," Gillispie said. "And a good win for them. We just did not do enough things to win on the road." The Wildcats have yet to win a game away from the home court in four trips.
With three wins to open SEC season, the Bulldogs are off to the best start since the 1994 campaign. This was the closest of the trio, but still followed State's favored script of a low-scoring struggle on each end. "We're playing hard, that's the thing we're doing," Stansbury said. And, better, turning the tough setbacks of pre-conference season into SEC successes.
"We knew we had lost a couple of close games like that at the beginning of the year," Turner said. "We knew we had been working too hard. We knew that was our victory."