Or from a MSU perspective, the Dog are two games closer to again winning the West, staying in the race for an overall conference crown…and, potentially, earning a NCAA Tournament berth. Asked if Mississippi State can get it done down the season-stretch, Rhodes seemed startled at the question.
"Who, us? You know I'm going to say yes!" the senior forward grinned. "We displayed it here tonight."
Indeed the somewhat-disappointing crowd of 8,793 got to see a display in Humphrey Coliseum. Several, in fact. First it was the Bulldogs howling ahead to double-digit leads behind a brilliant half from Rhodes. Then it was Arkansas scrambling back from near-dead not only to catch up but even take leads as late as the seventh-to-last minute. Finally, and decidingly, it was State putting into play something Coach Rick Stansbury stressed.
Or stamped rather, as at halftime the MSU coach tagged his players and himself with a red-ink ‘TOUGHNESS'. "You see these things?" said junior guard Gordon, displaying the words on each forearm. "We played that way the whole game." Most of all when the whole game was literally on the line, as a Bulldog team that three weeks ago was the SEC's worst free-throw shooting squad knocked down enough one-pointers to push Arkansas another step behind in the standings.
"Two game lead, six games left, means nothing," Stansbury said, adding. "But no question we like the position we're in with six games left."
"We just have to go on," Arkansas Coach John Pelphrey said. "There are six games left and a lot of things could happen. Certainly we are disappointed but we have no reason to hang our heads." Not after his squad overcame their first-half shock and battled back into position to steal a much-needed road win. That they couldn't seal the deal really did come back to home-team toughness…and ambition.
"It means a lot to win this game," said guard Barry Stewart. "Every next game is our biggest game but this was real big for us, to get a two-game lead on the next Division opponent."
For a while it didn't appear State would have to turn on any extra toughness, not with Rhodes hitting six of his first seven shots. "I've been in a couple of ‘zones' in my career but probably nothing like that in the first half," he said. This one-Dog attack produced 13 of State's first 15 points and he would reach halftime with 17 of his eventual game-high 24 points. Impressive indeed for a player who'd missed week-work with illness and still wasn't full-health by gameday.
"We didn't know which way his sickness was going this morning," Stansbury said. "He came in and said coach I can go. He was terrific that first half in every way." So rattled were the Razorbacks that even when Rhodes took a break fellow postmen like starting center Jarvis Varnado and backups Brian Johnson and Elgin Bailey were able to pound out points. On the other end Dog guards kept UA gunners Sonny Weems and Patrick Beverly relatively in-check, even if at the expense of their own scoring.
Even when former Dog Gary Ervin came off the Arkansas bench for a five-point spurt the State ‘second team' maintained a two- or three-basket cushion. Pelphrey's frustration peaked when Stewart took a rebound on one baseline and outran everybody to the other for a dunk and 32-22 score. If not for three-point plays from Stefan Welsh and Charles Thomas the Razorbacks might have been routed by halftime. As it was the scoreboard showed 47-34 at intermission with Bailey making all four of his shot in the period including a shot clock-beater basket. The deficit came despite 50% shooting by Arkansas, because the Dogs owned the boards and had a 14-2 edge in second-chance scoring.
Yet with the encouraging lead Stansbury still saw the need to stamp a word on MSU arms and a thought in their minds. "The first 20 minutes we were pretty good. We controlled both ends of the court. But it's a 40-minute game." Not that he had to tell old Dog Rhodes who has seen enough of the Razorbacks on home, hostile, and neutral courts over four years.
"I knew after that it was going to be different the second half because they were going to try to do things for me not to get the ball. Arkansas is a tough team, they're not going to back down from nobody."
And after a spate of offsetting turnovers to open the last half the visitors showed how they had been able to whip State by 20 points in Fayetteville three weeks back. Better ball-moves brought better shots and when Beverly popped the three it was Stansbury now calling for time at 51-46. "Starting the second half we had some turnovers, they made some shots, and I thought we panicked a little bit and started rushing some things," the coach said. Stopping play wasn't slowing the Hogs yet though, as Steven Hill scored a board and twice blocked Rhodes on the other end. An inbounds-banker by Weems and a Beverly trey gave Arkansas its first lead of the day 53-51 at 13:54.
"They were knocking down shots, hitting the boards hard, a few loose balls went their way," Stewart said. Meanwhile the Bulldogs missed nine of their first dozen shots, until Stewart was left alone in the left corner. "Any time Jamont penetrates I know they're going to sink-in so I was ready to shoot." And score the three. Backcourt mate Ben Hansbrough manufactured a tougher ‘trey' when, trapped on the baseline, he jumped into his defender while banking the ball to earn a extra free throw.
"That was two huge plays for us," said Stansbury.
Still Arkansas was up 68-67 at 6:33 after Rhodes missed a second free throw. Thomas subbed-in, only to turn the ball over to Stewart for a fastbreak foul and free throws that put State back in front at 6:02. UA's Vincent Hunter had two shots from the same corner-spot in a series, and missed both.
Likely the crucial series followed as Rhodes missed a jumper but the tied-rebound went to State. Gordon was having an awful offensive evening, missing his first eight shots. Yet when the ball came to him on the left-baseline, with two big men between him and the rim, MSU's muscular guard went right at all of them.
"I held them off, I'm glad they didn't call an offensive foul!" he admitted. "But I had to hold them off to get one in." Which he did. "He made a huge play right there on that out-under," Stansbury said. There was 4:54 left but State never trailed again as Varnado canned consecutive free throws. In fact the last ten Bulldog points came off 13 charity chances.
"We went to the line again today and knocked them down and that's pretty good for us," said Stansbury. Weems and Ervin got the only Arkansas baskets of the final five minutes, as they ended up the leading Razorback scorers with 14 and 15 points respectively. Beverly added 11 and forward Darian Townes 10 off the bench. But the UA inside game was almost non-existent as Hill and Thomas combined for eight points, most of that on putbacks.
Stewart had three of State's five treys and 19 total points, along with a surprising five rebounds. Varnado produced a double-double with ten points and boards alike, and three blocks. Maybe the real inside-story was Gordon, the team's scoring leader all season, ending up with nine points; seven from the stripe.
"If you'd told me Jamont would score one field goal and we'd win, I wouldn't have believed it," Stansbury said. "But we had some guys step up." Such as Bailey inside with eight points in 11 minutes. And if Gordon didn't produce big points, he did have eight rebounds and eight assists along with a pair of swats…including the game-capper at six seconds.
Now with a real loop-lead to enjoy, Stansbury still tried to contain team enthusiasm. "The W is huge," he said, "but it's one win. It's a marathon and we're not finished." Especially not with a week on the road right ahead, featuring visits to Ole Miss and South Carolina. Either stop could be a stumbling-spot on their way to March. "We think about all that," said Gordon. "Mostly the NCAA. But we still try to focus on this one-game-at-a-time."
Rhodes knows how the big picture looks now. "The away games are going to be tough, that's where we're going to show our toughness. If we want to be a championship team we're going to have to win those away games."