"We're still fighting for a lot of things," said Coach Rick Stansbury as his team improved to 19-8 and 10-3 SEC, now just a game behind overall conference leader Tennessee. "There's other things that can happen in the league yet with three games left to be played."
Especially if the Bulldogs produce similar shooting and scoring performances as against the Tigers (14-12, 4-9 SEC). State turned in the second-best evening of field-goal shooting in SEC play of Stansbury's ten-year tenure, hitting an even 60% (33 of 55). The perimeter marksmanship of 48% was just about as impressive with eleven three-pointers. Including one by none other than Rhodes, a heave at 0:40 which not only capped the team's explosive evening but gave the senior a career-high 30 points.
As State was already en route to victory there was no surprise by anyone Rhodes chose to loft a longball there. Especially to his laughing teammates. "I told the bench get ready for it because I'm fixing to jack that one!" said Rhodes. "I don't care how it looked, it was going up!" With that treyball and 30 Rhodes had the biggest SEC-scoring night by a Dog since Mario Austin against Arkansas in 2003.
"He dominated the game," smiled guard Jamont Gordon, who was a pretty powerful presence himself with 20 points and six assists. In fact Gordon's nine-straight points, all on threeballs, were as important as anything Rhodes did to get the game turned Mississippi State's way in the first half. All five starting Dogs ended up with double-digits as center Jarvis Varnado had 14 points and a team-best nine rebounds, while guards Barry Stewart and Ben Hansbrough each posted 11 markers.
Four Tigers scored double-digits. In fact their under-sized and big-hearted ‘center' Quan Prowell was the game's single start with 31 points and seven of his team's treys, in just ten tries. "Big ups to Quan," said an admiring Rhodes of the 6-8 senior's gallant efforts against a bigger, deeper foe. Guard Rasheem Barrett added 13 points for AU, forward Lucas Hargrove 11 and guard DeWayne Reed 10 off the bench. He was the only Tiger off the bench, too, with just six players seeing action.
"I thought we played pretty well tonight, we left everything on the table," said Tiger Coach Jeff Lebo. "I thought we competed hard but Mississippi State is good offensively."
Very, very good on this particular evening. "We won it offensively," Stansbury agreed. At the same time the Bulldogs had to put in some decent defense to walk away with a double-digit margin because the Tigers didn't make anything easy. Using essentially a four-guard, one-forward from tip to horn, Auburn was able to create scoring opportunities and manufacture points. "You see why Auburn is such a bad matchup," said Stansbury. "If you can't neutralize at the other end and score against them they're going to beat you. It was obvious tonight Prowell was making shots."
The coach's answer was to go into a zone midway of the first half and stay there. Not a packed zone to guard the lane, but a wider set that at least forced the Tigers to throw the ball a bit farther around the perimeter and gave State guards time to adjust. Usually. Plus, Stansbury said, "It stretched that game, made that clock run, and I was able to stay with that starting lineup the second half."
This second meeting with Auburn began nothing like the first, when State had scored the game's first ten points in just 80 seconds. In fact this time around nobody had a basket by 18:40, and it was Auburn getting on the board first on a Frank Tolbert layup. The Tigers were still leading at the first media timeout and it was tied 14-all two minutes later.
"They came out real tough," Rhodes said. "And they're tough on the road, we've seen them with beating Ole Miss and stuff like that. They were knocking down some big shots."
Gordon did too by throwing in three-straight threes; from out top, then the left wing, and then the right. So that the next time the clock stopped State was up 23-16. "I started feeling it a little bit and let it ride," Gordon said.
Stansbury used the nice early lead to start the normal subbing, mostly in the post. Which was no defensive excuse for Auburn's response, or rather Prowell's as he drove for a tough layup and then stuck consecutive treys that suddenly had it tied 26-26 at 7:45. When play resumed after the next break the starting five was back on-court together…and Prowell was still able to bomb one in again for a Tiger lead.
"You saw how tough he was!" Varnado said. "We went into a zone because he was shooting it so great."
Still the Tigers weren't going to survive strictly on outside shooting. And while a three-fer from State's Phil Turner evened the tally, it was good old fashioned power plays by Rhodes and Varnado that regained control as they combined for the next six points. "Coach told the guards just gives us the ball down low because they had a matchup problem, and they did that," said Varnado. In this stretch the center also swatted a shot that Stewart managed to bat off a Tiger for MSU possession. It helped that Prowell, perhaps tired of arm, left his next few long shots short. Auburn's Reed did throw one in but so did State's Stewart, and Varnado dunked for a 42-35 intermission margin.
The Tigers found a few creases for Tolbert to attack and evade Varnado's long arms early in the new half. Hargrove didn't even try to go around the State center, he simply drove and dunked right through Varnado for a two-point difference at 16 minutes. Which was as close at Auburn could get.
Because Rhodes and Varnado scored around Tiger turnovers, one a shot-clock violation as State extended the zone a step farther. "We adjusted to stop them, and we did," Gordon said. On the other Gordon missed a three, which Varnado recovered and returned to the guard for another try that took four bounces before dropping good. When Hansbrough finished a fastbreak with a corner-three Auburn called time down 57-48.
A Reed trey did have the deficit down to 61-55 midway of the half, before back-to-back dunks by Rhodes and a rebound layup. "They're too small to guard Charles down there," Gordon said. "And he created open shots for us outside." Such as Hansbrough's three-point shot followed by a classic three-point play for a 76-62 score. Everything else was for the stat sheet or entertainment, such as Rhodes' heave for three at forty seconds.
"It was my second-to-last game and it's getting emotional for me," Rhodes said. And yes, he admitted, he knew he was shooting for a career-high on that bomb.
Stansbury's own emotion was of relief at having survived a dangerous turn in the stretch-run schedule. "With the fans a little bit dead, we're coming off a big win at South Carolina, them coming off an emotional win. It was a huge trap game for us." Plus, there were all those unusual matchups presented by a small, fast foe. Yet at the final horn it was the Bulldogs who not only had more points but more assists through excellent ball-movement. "That's pretty efficient," the coach noted.
And the Bulldogs are in a pretty good position, assured of nothing worse than a first-day bye at the SEC Tournament no matter how the ties would break if Arkansas somehow caught up. Of course State and Stansbury can now raise their ambitions a few more steps, beyond an un-split West title. "There's three games left," the coach said. "We're not talking about sharing. We like the position we're in, but it's a lot of basketball left to be played."
Gordon could afford to be a bit more blunt. "We're ready to go win at Florida now."