"Coach said this was a must-win for us," said Rhodes. "It was real big to take care of business." Which the Bulldogs did, with Rhodes and guard Jamont Gordon both notching double-doubles and guard Ben Hansbrough contributing 20 points in his first start in a month.
Auburn fell to 12-10, 2-7 SEC with their fifth-straight loss.
"It was a big win no matter what," Stansbury said. "We as coaches don't talk about must-wins, but it was clear if we wanted to do what we want to do we had to win at Auburn. Our guys understood that and came out and played with focus and energy."
Which was immediately obvious as 15 seconds after the referee tossed up the ball State center Jarvis Varnado was dunking it. By 18:48 the Bulldogs were in front 10-0, and only once did the MSU margin ever slip below double-digits…and that for just ten seconds of game-time.
"Our team came in with a plan," Stansbury said. "You don't always have a plan that works, but we took it into the game and executed about as well as you could execute." The plan wasn't exactly inspired or surprising either; with Auburn starting four guards and a small forward the middle of their defense was irresistible. Rather, the Tigers weren't able to resist an initial attack by Rhodes, who had five points in the very first minute.
"It started from guards having to guard me and Jarvis," said Rhodes, who collected 17 total points—13 in the first half—and 10 rebounds for his third double-double in the last four games, and eighth of this senior season. But he was more than matched by Gordon, who topped most of the day's stat columns for both teams with 24 points, 13 rebounds, and eight assists. And, eight turnovers, which likely wouldn't have been factored into any triple-double.
Hansbrough had four of State's three-point goals, with three more from Gordon as the Dogs put together their best-balanced offense in weeks. "We got the ball down low, Charles and Jarvis scored some buckets," said Gordon. "We penetrated and they kicked it back out and we knocked down big shots." All but seven of State's points came from the starting lineup, as despite a game-long lead Stansbury didn't make that much use of his bench.
Perhaps out of sympathy for his counterpart, as injuries have left Auburn without many substitution options. Only eight Tigers got into the game, with Rasheem Barrett leading their scoring list at 18 points and a pair of treys. Frank Tolbert had 17 points, though he and Barrett also had to take 37 of the team's 68 shots. Quantez Robertson added 16 points, as Auburn shot 29% for the first half and 34% for the game.
"We had a tough one today," Tiger Coach Jeff Lebo said. "We shot so poorly that we never really had a chance. We received nothing from Quan Prowell or DeWayne Reed with their time out there." But there wasn't much more the outmanned home team could have tried or done under the circumstances.
"Jeff is squeezing everything he can out of his basketball team," Stansbury said. And though whipped 46-27 in total rebounds, the shorter Tigers scrapped for more offensive boards than defensive caroms…but only had six put-back points to show for it. And nine Auburn shots were blocked, six by Varnado who established a MSU season record with 111. "No, I didn't even know!" the soph claimed after breaking the 1996 record of 106 by Erick Dampier. Teased by Rhodes, Varnado admitted he knew he needed to get one block for the mark. "But I just went out and tried to play hard defense and rebound." While he only snared three boards, Varnado made all four of his shots.
Beginning with that initial slam for a lead never relinquished, only expanded. Auburn didn't get on their own scoreboard until 18:13 when Reed made one free throw, while Rhodes was having his way at the other end. "We wanted to run, but if we couldn't we wanted to be patient enough to get it inside and we did that early," said Stansbury. "I thought we controlled the flow." When Rhodes took a brief break it was 19-4 in MSU's favor. Stansbury did give backup posts Brian Johnson and Elgin Bailey a few first-half minutes, and the offensive rhythm suffered with the subbing.
But the Tigers had been busy fouling and the Bulldogs were in the bonus by 14:41. Hansbrough added four free throws to the tally, then with the 35-second clock fading fired a forced three that struck for a 36-21 margin. "I heard ‘shot clock' and looked up, saw only two seconds and let it go. I didn't even see it go in."
Meanwhile the Tigers struggled to establish any sort of offense that didn't end up with a long heave over the bigger Bulldogs, who mostly stuck to standard man-defense but mixed in some zone just to change the pace. If not for 18 points from Tolbert and Barrett it would have been a route at intermission. Even then a trey by Stewart and Rhodes' dunk before the buzzer let State take a 44-29 lead into their locker room. With 13 points each Rhodes and Hansbrough had almost matched the whole Tiger team for the period.
Varnado had hit both his first-half shots, so he took a couple more attempts to open the new period and connected as part of a eight-point State run for the first 20-point margin, 52-32. The Dogs would have gotten their sooner if not for some uncharacteristic Gordon turnovers in single-pressure. He came back after giving up a cheap Auburn bucket to drain a trey though.
But after Auburn's Reed hit a three of his own Gordon again had his pocket picked for a layup that had the Tigers within 60-50, and Stansbury calling for time. Whatever play was drawn-out, Gordon called his own number when left alone out-top and pop the open three-ball.
"They were pressuring me a lot, any move I gave them they backed off," Gordon said. "They gave me room and I knocked down big shots."
And that was as close as the home team would come the rest of their frustrating night. The Tigers not only missed jumpshots but layups went awry…or were blocked, such as when sub-guard Phil Turner rejected both a first shot in the lane and then the putback try. Gordon followed that with a three in his defender's face, and Hansbrough made it a 20-point game again with his layup at 6:52.
Prowell fouled out at 6:52, and after State's Stewart blocked a layup from behind Lebo drew a technical. Gordon made both free throws, then pitched to Turner for a trey. State's lead peaked at 83-60 on a three from Hansbrough.
It wasn't a perfect performance for State, which had 24 turnovers and many of them self-induced. "Those turnovers aren't what they are," said Stansbury, adding "That's a crazy statement, but there were some turnovers that we helped create ourselves." He pointed to some personal feuding between Gordon and AU's Robertson to setting up some of those miscues, but said the mistakes didn't end up changing the flow of the game.
"We held them to 33% shooting," said Stansbury. "And when you're as efficient as we were offensively you're going to win most games." Though the coach might have been proudest of State's efficiency at the free throw line this night, with the Dogs making 23-of-26 attempts. This, from the next-to-worst squad in the SEC on charity chances. Stansbury credited changing some practice routines, which had been a way of Bulldog life for ten years, for the improvement.
The Bulldogs have to wait a week for their next game, which should be useful since it will be a Saturday showdown with Arkansas. The Razorbacks took a 78-58 decision in Fayetteville on January 30, State's first loss of the league season. But the Dogs have been able to stay up-front in the West, and the winner of the rematch will be in prime position for the stretch run. Before coming to Starkville, the Razorbacks have to visit Tennessee for a Wednesday game.
If the road trip to Auburn was a must-win, the looming rematch with Arkansas must fall into the ‘absolute' category. But this is exactly where the Bulldogs wanted to be, and intend to stay.
"From the beginning of the SEC, from our first win, we thought of the title," said Rhodes. "Tonight was just a stepping-stone for us."