Then again a scoreboard favoring Mississippi State over Alabama by a 73-66 margin looked just fine under the mid-season circumstances. The Bulldogs snapped back from a two-loss streak to improve to 15-7 overall and 6-2 SEC, moving a half-step in front of idle Arkansas in the Western Division standings. State also completed the first regular-season sweep of this rivalry since 1999, Stansbury's debut year. And, the head coach became MSU's first mentor to score 200 career victories.
Alabama left 13-10, 2-6 SEC. Not for lack of trying, but because the home team had the advantage in most categories that counted. Such as, motivation.
"It was all about not giving up a loss at The Hump," said senior Rhodes. "In the second half we played with a better tempo and pushed the ball more, things like that." Those and other things, particularly timely rebounds and better free-throw shooting, allowed State to hold back the Crimson Tide after a couple of late-game charges that had the margin down to a single basket.
"We found a way to pull it off," said guard Jamont Gordon, whose four free throws in the final minute provided most of the margin of victory. And, the last of his 17 points which matched Rhodes for game-high. Starting guard Barry Stewart had 13 points and half of State's six three-point goals, while guard Ben Hansbrough added 10 points off the bench.
Alabama bettered the individual list with four in double-digits, led by guard Alonzo Gee's 16 points. The Tide came up short though because Dog-ged defense held them to 36% shooting for the night; and because Alabama held itself to 9-of-17 accuracy, or lack thereof, at the free-throw stripe. Not that State was vastly better in this matchup of the SEC's foulest foul-shooting squads, but the Dogs did make 15 of 22 chances for, yes, most of their winning difference.
"They obviously made a few more plays than we did," Tide Coach Mark Gottfried said, before turning to his team's night at the stripe. "We go 9-of-17 at the foul line, that one jumps right off the page at me. In close games that's just a hard thing to overcome."
Alabama had something the Bulldogs have found hard to overcome for three seasons in center Richard Hendrix, the league's leading post man who came in averaging a double-double. The junior did reach a dozen points but never threatened to take over the affair and was held to six rebounds. Hendrix didn't finish the game either, fouling out at 48 seconds.
Checking the big man was job-one for Jarvis Varnado. The sophomore center had gotten in fast foul trouble at Tuscaloosa three weeks ago, but this time he was able to play smart and stay around longer; 36 minutes in fact with just one personal assessed. Varnado netted ‘only' eight points and three boards with just a couple of blocked shots (one off Hendrix' hand), yet it might have been his best defensive performance of the season.
"He's just a load inside, I think I did a pretty job on him," said Varnado. "He can't shoot that well from the floor. I had to front him, I couldn't play behind him, then my guards were coming in and helping." Hendrix had to settle for 6-of-15 shooting with several attempts well-away from the bucket.
Guard Mykal Riley added 15 points for Alabama while backcourt mates Brandon Hollinger and Mikhail Torrance scored ten points each. The Tide was 7-of-21 from MSU arcs while State struck for six threes. Just not early or often. Fortunately for the image of both programs the game was not televised.
Because the initial minutes produced some abysmal basketball low-lighted by combined 1-of-11 shooting; the lone basket a dunk by State's Varnado. Alabama couldn't create a decent look against man-defense, and even Hendrix was forced to heave up a longball. It missed. The only encouraging aspect was easy-going officiating that kept the clock moving.
"Everybody started off slow," said Gordon. "I guess it was just one of those games."
The first Tide attempt to fall was by Riley at 16:35. And his inbounds-pass layup provided their first lead, 8-7 at 13:06, after a series of Dog giveaways. Four missed free throws kept Alabama from expanding a bit, though. Meanwhile Hansbrough, out for three games with mononucleosis, had subbed-in. "Our plan was put him in first sub and if we didn't have to carry him off put him back out there," said Stansbury. After a couple of minutes to loosen up Hansbrough rewarded the faith with a three-ball, then a breakaway layup off a Gordon steal.
"I knew if I went out there I had to prove I was ready to play," said Hansbrough, who not only gave some quick points but made things hard on Riley in man-defense in the second half. Just not so much in the first period as it was Riley's fast five points that kept things from getting out of control entirely. Riley scored 11 of Alabama's first 13 markers as it took Hendrix 14 minutes to get on the scoreboard.
When he finally did his layup tied the tally. A steal-and-dunk by Gee had Alabama in front again 27-25, before Stewart unloaded for three and Turner followed suit from the opposite corner. "It's a credit to our bigs," said Stewart, "they ran the floor a little bit tonight and it opened up the outside. And they were rebounding so we got out and pushed it."
So State was able to get off the court with a 33-29 lead as the Tide missed free throws that would have narrowed their gap. And after sticking a three to open the new period Gee missed his trey to tie. Still Alabama was within 46-43 on a trio of free throws by the same shooter before Gordon stemmed the surge by boarding his own miss for a putback.
But things were much more interesting in the sixth-to-last minute, as a seven-point lead turned into 60-58 in the time it took for Torrance to throw in three and Riley to convert on a MSU turnover at 5:30. Gordon drew the defense and kicked out to an open Hansbrough for a cold-blooded bomb, and after Torrance blew a backdoor layup Gordon out-jumped two Tiders for a hanging layup at the other end.
"Jamont and Charles stepped up and gave us that little bit of an edge you have to have," said Stansbury.
And still Alabama wasn't finished as Gee made two free chances, then was left alone for an open three-ball and 65-63 score. Hendrix tried to draw a charge, instead collecting a fourth personal at 3:03. State used most of the fresh shot clock before Rhodes had to force a miss…which crossed the iron right where Varnado could rebound on the other side and score.
"I was just trying to make a play," Varnado said. "I knew they were going to concentrate on Charles and slipped in and just got the rebound."
Down four, Gee's hook-shot was too hard and Stewart snared the carom. Gordon forced the issue with a hard drive that netted Hendrix' fifth foul, with he and Rhodes exchanging the salutes of old foes likely meeting for the last time on the same court. "He gave me that look and I told him I'll see you later!" Rhode said. Meanwhile Gordon made two free throws off the foul, and more charity chips in the final minute assured State's survival after what Stansbury admitted was a "sluggish" evening.
"Particularly in the first half, we weren't at our best by no means and the stats showed it," the coach said. Even the all-game numbers weren't completely positive as while the Dogs had a 41-38 edge in rebounds overall they gave the Tide 13 offensive boards. Fortunately for State Varnado and Rhodes, or backup posts like Elgin Bailey and Brian Johnson, were usually close enough to the caroms to prevent instant putbacks, or things could have taken a different turn.
"Every game we just try to grind it out," said Stewart. "Defending and rebounding, that's what we do best." Dogs did other things well too, such as the 10 assists from Gordon against one turnover. "I just tried to take care of the ball and get my teammates in the game, try to create shots."
"Gordon is hard to stop," agreed Gottfried. "You can try a bunch of guys on him, even thogh his numbers were good I thought Brandon Hollinger did a great job guarding him. I thought Jamont made bit plays at big times, I thought Rhodes' baskets were key at some key times too."
Rhodes almost got another double-double of his own with nine boards. "I think David (Rosinski, State's SID) missed a rebound!" he proclaimed. "I've got to make up for it Saturday night because I'm just loving rebounding right now."
The Bulldogs would also love to start another winning streak, such as their five-game stretch to start SEC season that had them on top of the entire conference until last week. So, "We just have to get focused for Auburn," said Rhodes of State's Saturday evening contest.