Just like their three previous conference conquests there wasn't much finesse to State's success. "We did it with the I.D. of this basketball team," said Coach Rick Stansbury, now 12-9 against the cross-border rival. As in, the Bulldogs defended and rebounded a bit better that the other side. It's not a pretty way to play but it certainly works for this State squad, which is off to the program's best SEC start since 1994. And, 2-0 in league road games.
"Our guys found a way to do what you have to do to win on the road," Stansbury said. "What separates the teams that have a chance to win championships are the teams that win on the road. You have to do it with defending and rebounding."
And just a little bit of offense as well. Gordon set the pace there with a game-best 24 points, half his markers coming on three-point goals. Stewart added 16 points and three treys. It wasn't just the three points those longballs added to the scoreboard, the timing of several such treys meant just as much in keeping Alabama at bay in both halves.
"We got into gaps early in the game and got a bunch of open looks," said Stewart. "Me and ‘Mont just knocked down some open threes." Which was complete contrast to Alabama's inability to make things happen from long, or often even medium, ranges. The Tide was just 2-of-14 at their own arc, and so unreliable was their backcourt's production that the offense seemed stuck in slow-motion all afternoon…even in the last minute.
Starting UA guards Rico Pickett and Mykal Riley managed seven points between them and were 1-of-8 on trey-tries. Wing-man Alonzo Gee did manage ten points but with just two field goals from short-range. That was exactly how State game-planned for this matchup.
"We got into Gee and Riley," Stansbury said. "You have to pick and choose guys to take out of the game and we made a conscious decision Gee and Riley weren't going to beat us."
Nor was the Tide's splendid big man, at least not by himself. Forward Richard Hendrix did all he could to keep Alabama in contention, scoring 21 points with six boards. He made 8-of-10 shots, too, yet that was also a State success because the All-SEC junior couldn't get even more touches and attempts. The Bulldogs put pairs of bodies on Hendrix, starting with Varnado and forward Charles Rhodes while backups Brian Johnson and Elgin Bailey burned more minutes when the others got into foul issues.
"They brought their ‘A' game today," Hendrix said. "Their best players stepped up and played ball, hit some big shots and made some big stops." And the Bulldogs did it by playing almost exclusively man-defense, an approach made infinitely easier by Alabama's lack of penetrating/shooting threats in the backcourt.
The contrasting styles were obvious from the opening. Alabama went right to the goal with Jemison and Hendrix for three quick buckets; while against a zone set the Bulldogs fired perimeter jumpers. Threes trumped twos as Gordon and Stewart both stuck a pair of treys for a 14-8 lead. "They were just going in for me," Gordon said. "I keep working on my shot and they're starting to fall for me." The first jumpshot by a Tider was from forward Demetrius Jemison, on an assist from Hendrix. Stansbury subbed between TV breaks with three fresh Dogs including guard Ben Hansbrough, who showed no pain from a week-old broken finger by sticking a longball from out top.
But his steal and layup were blocked after banking off the glass, vigorously protested by MSU's bench, and the Tide's reverse-break scored. And Gee was able to beat Brian Johnson for a three-point play and 18-17 scoreboard. Better foul-shooting by either squad would have made a difference here, but the sides were a combined 4-of-11.
So State maintained some margin as Stewart tipped-in a miss and Rhodes dunked. But Varnado also got his second foul at 8:28; within four minutes Gordon recklessly picked up a third personal. Alabama's widened zone pushed the ball far enough to each side that Gordon and Hansbrough each caught passes standing on the sideline for turnovers.
And, the home team finally got a long-ball to fall as guard Brandon Hollinger struck for three. It took a wing-three by MSU's Riley Benock to regain the lead and another by Hansbrough for a 33-28 edge at intermission in spite of the minutes-sat by several starters.
Both sides drained treys to start the second period, but the Bulldogs were able to repeat the process as Gordon bombed in a pair of long shots. "Jamont made some tough shots, especially in the second half to give us some separation," Stansbury said. Varnado, who hadn't taken any try in the opening half, made his first attempt—off a rebound—count as State jumped ahead 42-31 and the Tide called for time. Not that anything discussed in their huddle could change how well the Dogs were wrecking things in the backcourt, key to a series of turnovers and forced drives into traffic.
"Our mentality every game is disrupt the guards," agreed Gordon. Even when State disrupted itself, as on Rhodes' three-point try that both produced Varnado's third foul on the rebound and a gesture of ‘why?' things worked out. Because Alabama kept settling for long misses, compared to a corner-trey by Hansbrough and back-door layup from Gordon that extended the margin to 13 points with a dozen minutes left. And, started some of the already-thin crowd for the gates.
They missed the best stretch of the Alabama afternoon. Hendrix's five-straight points and a Mikhail Torrance breakaway had Stansbury pausing play at 49-41. A Turner bomb didn't stem the assault as Alabama reeled off seven-straight points, the last three by Hendrix as he drew Varnado's fourth foul, for a 52-48 count with over 8:00 still to be played.
Four minutes and some wild play later it was still a four-point difference. Senario Hillman got loose for an inbounds under his basket resulting in a three-point play and Gordon's fourth foul. With Alabama now in man-defense Gordon also turned the ball over at the other end.
"When they went man they did get a lot of pressure out there," Stewart said. "I think it threw us off." But Gordon had the best answer back on defense as Pickett drove the left wing. "He over-penetrated and I saw where he was going with the ball," Gordon said, "so I got a steal." Along with a flying dunk. Hendrix's turnaround-try rimmed off, and before the 35-second clock could sound Varnado had cashed in Stewart's unconventional ‘assist' for a 63-55 lead.
"We drew a play to get a screen right there and if I didn't have the shot I had Charles coming in. but they defended it well and I just threw it up," Stewart said. "I knew Jarvis would go get it because he had inside position. I knew my teammate had my back!"
"Those were two effort plays," Stansbury said.
Consecutive unforced Tide turnovers resulted in easy fastbreak baskets that settled the outcome with a minute left for the few hundred visiting Dog fans to cheer and escaping home folk to offer a quick boo or two—the focus of such ire uncertain--on their way out.
State's statistical margins were smaller than the score difference; 46.3% shooting to 45.5% for Alabama, 34 rebounds to 29. The obvious difference was ten more longballs falling for the visitors. "If you make shots no question it gives your team energy," Stansbury said. Less obvious to observers but entirely clear to the coach was something else that has been a consistent aspect of Bulldog play this month. "We just felt down the stretch we had to be the toughest team on the court."
"We just kept executing and staying together," said Gordon. "We're just playing good right now."
But the Bulldogs won't be playing again for a full week, thanks to the SEC schedule that gives them this Wednesday off. It's probably a good break. Stansbury said when on a roll a team always prefers to keep playing, but after a 4-0 start State might well benefit from a January pause to work on some rougher aspects of their offensive game. And, to get everyone healthy. Hansbrough put in 25 minutes a week after breaking the finger, though Stansbury said he really didn't know the soph would be playing "until I put him in." Rhodes also re-turned the left ankle injured back in December and re-rolled in the Georgia game. A winning streak gave the senior enough levity-leeway to tell his coach he wouldn't be able to practice Monday.
Seriously, though, the Bulldogs are thoroughly enjoying the current hot streak, and intend to keep the temperature up when the season resumes. "I think our team has that chemistry and everything is going for us," Rhodes said. "We've just got to keep it up."