None of the 8,821 in The Hump made more of the day than State's lone scholarship senior. And Rhodes made sure he went out in style, leading his squad with 27 points and ten rebounds. After knocking down a couple of final free throws at 19 seconds Rhodes was allowed his curtain-call which he maximized by:
--giving all teammates on the court a hug;
--sending the student section a double-handed salute;
--and going face-down at mid-court to kiss the banner-M logo, which even the Tigers and SEC officiating crew had to chuckle at. It took longer for Rhodes to leave the court than to actually play out those final game-seconds. Not that anyone who has known the voluble, volatile senior was surprised at the displays. After all, he'd thrown his shooting shirt halfway up the student section in pre-game ceremonies.
Rhodes even wore a special decoration to the home finale, a five-point star shaved into his hair behind the right ear. "I told my Momma the star is gonna shine today," he explained. "It was real emotional for me, I was so tense. It took me a whole half to get through that."
Him and State alike as the feisty Tigers, coached the last five weeks by former Dog guard Butch Pierre, took their best shot at spoiling this senior's day. Their best shot being guard Marcus Thornton, who piled up a game-best 38 points and threw in six three-pointers with five coming in a furious last-quarter comeback.
It fell short as the Bulldogs withstood both the emotions and the enemy. "It's a great victory for us," said guard Jamont Gordon. "We came out flat, and picked it up."
"I told my team I was proud of them," said Pierre. "There was a great crowd here for Senior Day, but our team played hard and with a lot of emotion."
Coach Rick Stansbury had a hunch his team would be tested today. Not only by the special aspects of Senior Day, but from the after-effects of the overtime Wednesday loss at Vanderbilt. "We knew it was going to be a difficult game, we knew how good LSU was and how this was sandwiched," Stansbury said. "We'd already won the West, it's very easy to look at it and say what are you playing for. I'm glad that's over, glad we survived an glad we won it."
It took a combined 50 points from Rhodes and Gordon, with a dozen more from guard Ben Hansbrough, for the Dogs to escape unscathed. Along with a much more intense second half of work on both ends. After getting beat on their own boards in the opening period State ended up one-short at the final horn. It helped that Rhodes got his emotions under halftime-control, and center Jarvis Varnado was able to play all 20 minutes of the period after sitting most of the first with two fouls.
Varnado ended up with seven points, six rebounds…and seven blocked balls. "I didn't score that much tonight, but just rebounding and defending is what I do." Rhodes also rejected a couple of Tiger attempts, as many as LSU's whole team mustered.
"The first half LSU controlled that game," Stansbury said. "But the last 20 minutes we controlled it."
State could have controlled the opening half, too, had Rhodes not mis-fired on his first three shots, traveled, and taken a hard spill on the defensive end. "That star almost got me in a little trouble!" he admitted. But he did cash in four free throws while Hansbrough was hitting a pair of treys to give State a 15-5 lead. All the Tigers had to show were baskets for center Chris Johnson.
LSU survived that early stretch, and once Stansbury gave Rhodes and Varnado their scripted breaks the Tigers took advantage of second-line postmen to get back in it. Johnson hit a jumper and dunked off the rim to cut the deficit to three points by the second media timeout. Even when Rhodes returned Varnado didn't, sidelined by two fouls. This allowed LSU to go at the rim more freely for short jumpers and rebound baskets.
"The game completely changed with no shot-blocking presence in there," said Varnado. "It was very easy for them to go inside." Though Johnson was also able to step out and, aided by a great bounce, hit for three. A pick-and-roll for forward Anthony Randolph suddenly had State's lead down to a point, and as the Dogs settled for quick long misses the Tigers were able to catch up and then grab their first lead, 36-35 on an end-to-end dash by M.Thornton. He added a trey the next trip and a trash-basket by Garrett Green suddenly had LSU up 41-37.
Gordon passed on the longball and attacked for an acrobatic layup and when LSU dropped into a zone Hansbrough made them pay. Still the home team was down at intermission 43-42.
"We score 42 points the first half but couldn't stop them," Stansbury said. The coach was a bit harsher with his players in the locker room. "He told us we didn't jut play our better half," Gordon said. "We didn't do what we do, defend and rebound." In fact LSU had eight more rebounds with their margin mostly built on second-chance points.
That lead went to five points as despite Varnado's presence the Tigers slashed for scores, twice by Johnson as he just beat his man to the rim. Free throws by Gordon and a Rhodes reverse-layup in traffic cut the deficit to 49-48 and had Pierre calling a quick timeout. The Bulldogs also dropped into a zone which forced Johnson to take a 12-footer. Varnado came out to block it and the top Tiger got his 4th foul chasing the rebound.
"Johnson is big, long, athletic and can really shoot," said Varnado. "When he went out of the game that was big for us." Rhodes put State back up on a roll across the lane at 14:46. With Johnson still sitting the Dogs went back into man-defense and LSU went five minutes without scoring a basket. Meanwhile Stewart tipped-in a Varnado miss, Rhodes powered for two, and Gordon set up in the left corner for an open three that pushed the Bulldogs ahead 62-52 midway of the period. "I tried to get easy shots for my teammates and create for myself," said Gordon.
Pierre had to get Johnson back on the floor at nine minutes, but on the break Randolph didn't notice Gordon setting up at midcourt and plowed into his own fourth foul. Not that either followed Varnado out to the top of the key, where State's center fired and banked in his first career three-pointer.
"I was just saving that for a special occasion!" Varnado quipped. "They weren't playing me out there so why not?!"
Down 14 points LSU just let Thornton bomb away from the arc and he made good on four of five consecutive attempts. Rhodes had a pair of slams in the same stretch but the Tigers kept clawing closer. Varnado goal-tended a Johnson layup, and Thornton hammered home yet another three-ball that had it down to 75-71 with over two minutes still to play.
"I had some bad flashbacks," admitted Gordon, thinking to how Vanderbilt's Shan Foster had torched the Dogs on treys including the OT game-winner. But four was as close as the Tigers could crawl. "We tried to push him farther from the three-point line," Gordon said, "we knew he was going to shoot it. We hoped he'd miss it."
Thornton did, leaving a longer longball short. Rhodes drew a holding foul on LSU's Quinton Thornton and canned both free throws, and after Marcus T. again was shy from very long-range Gordon fed Varnado for a slam at 0:51. From there it was just a matter of making five more free throws to keep a comfortable margin.
And, allow Rhodes to take a bow--and much more—while fellow upperclassman Billy Begley got some final home court-seconds of his own career. Not that the underclassmen didn't get to enjoy the affair almost as much. "I'm proud of the team how we gathered ourselves, and the second half pulled it out," said guard Barry Stewart.
Two more Tigers joined M.Thornton in double-digits as Johnson and Randolph had 17 and 14 points with a combined 16 rebounds. "We got in some foul trouble with our big men," Pierre said. "Not having Chris in there really hurt us. Even though we got behind I think we did a good job, but we needed to have more of a rebounding presence down the stretch."
"Give Butch a lot of credit for the job he's doing with that team," said Stansbury. "We knew it was going to be a dog-fight." A fight the Dogs were able to win. Even though they'd clinched the West a week ago, it was still something to celebrate.
"Back-to-back Western Division champs, it just gives us confidence we're ready to play in the tournament," said Gordon. The Bulldogs won't have to play until Friday's 7:30et game in Atlanta, awaiting the winner of Thursday's Florida-Alabama game. Though they are all but assured of a NCAA berth now, Mississippi State knows the post-season seeding can still be upgraded by a productive weekend in the Georgia Dome.
Then there's just the chance to play for another championship, something near and dear to Rhodes' heart since he came to Starkville. Yes, winning the last home game and cutting down nets was important to the big Dog. "It means a lot going out on top," he said. But going off for chances at more wins and other nets means as much or more now.
"I'll enjoy this one today," said Rhodes. "Then we've got to plan on winning the whole SEC Tournament. I think we're capable of doing that."