It took a brilliant afternoon by Rhodes, though, to make sure Mississippi State's tournament—and his own college career—did not end at one contest. The senior made 10 of his 12 field goal attempts, converted on 14 of his 18 free throw trips, and collected nine rebounds for good measure. The 34 points were the most ever by a post-season Dog, surpassing the 32 points by Daryl Wilson against Utah in 1995, as well as Rhodes's career high. So dominant was the big Dog that often it seemed he was taking on the Ducks alone.
Emotionally, he truly was. "I made sure to put them on my shoulders," Rhodes said. "I thought I was going to have to shoot some treys, but my percentage ain't good, I wasn't going to do that to the team!" Then again, no one would have been surprised if he'd lofted some longballs…and made them on this red-hot evening in Little Rock.
"I don't think it's my best game, but I think it's my best game ever on this type of stage," said Rhodes, the only Dog with any prior NCAA experience.
Fortunately Rhodes wasn't required to fire from the arc. Barry Stewart filled that role, at least in the second half. After he missed his first four long shots, and State the first ten, soph guard Stewart pulled the trigger and hit on one…then another, and another, and ultimately all four of the threeballs his team garnered in 17 attempts.
"After the first went down, I think it helped us a lot," said Stewart, who finished with 16 points. "It gave us some momentum and energy." And, served to deflate a Duck team that thrived all season and in the first half today on perimeter scoring. While Stewart was heating up, Oregon was going frigid at the arc. They made seven treys in the first half for a double-digit intermission margin. "The second half they were 2-of-21," Coach Rick Stansbury said. "And Stew stepped up and knocked down four for us." Which entirely changed the game in State's favor, too.
"Eventually we knew we were going to loosen up and get some shots," said Stansbury. "Once you start making some shots that ball is easier to get inside to Charles."
Yet as pleased as coach and team were about the points, all involved credited State's standard gameplan with keeping them in contention. And, making the comeback practical. As guard Jamont Gordon said, "The second half we locked-down and defended and did what we do." As in, State guarded harder and boarded better.
"The victory was based on our ability to defend and rebound," Stansbury said. "We shut their three-point shot down in the second half and that was the difference in the game."
For over a half Oregon's three-pointing was certainly the difference in their game. And if the Ducks were worried about the obvious physical mis-matches against bigger, stouter State, it didn't show. In fact center Joevan Catron stuffed his MSU counterpart, Jarvis Varnado, on the opening attempt of the contest. Nor did the Ducks rattle after missing their first three long shots, they kept firing and started making. Treys by Tajuan Porter, Bryce Taylor, and Malik Hairston had them up 11-4 at the first media break. Seven of UO's first nine shots were taken from the arc.
"They were hitting shots, I thought they were here five hours before us!" claimed Rhodes.
It was still a seven-point margin when Varnado asserted himself; powering for a three-point play, blocking a baseline jumper, and pushing in a layup. Guard Ben Hansbrough turned a Duck mistake into a layup and 17-15 deficit at 12:26. Oregon regained their pace and the offenses combined for a stretch of shoot-and-score that didn't allow Stansbury his typical sub-pattern for first halves. It wouldn't be until the 10:16 stoppage, with OU back up 24-19 on a Porter longball, that State was able to put four fresh bodies on the court, Gordon the lone holdover. The Ducks dropped into a zone when play resumed, too, which Gordon, Phil Turner, and Ravern Johnson all missed over. On their end UO's Maarty Leunen didn't, for a 28-20 tally as Stansbury got his starters back in.
Leunen picked up his second foul at 7:05 and sat, with a cost to his team's effectiveness in each lane. Rhodes free throws and a Gordon post-up basket had the Dogs within 30-25 before an exchange of turnovers and Porter pullup stemmed momentum. Then the Ducks turned it totally their way as Gordon was rejected on a drive and Hairston made it hurt with a trey. With the shot-clock fading Porter loosed a 25-footer that rattled in for a 38-28 halftime bulge. Hairston made it a 13-point lead with his bomb to begin the last period.
"In the first half they got the lead by making those threes," Stansbury said. "It wasn't no secrets at halftime. We were in this situation last week (against Georgia in the SEC Tournament). These guys made their minds up we were going to do what we've tried to do all year long."
"The first half they shot a lot of deep shots, a lot of shots went for them, some even banked in," Stewart said. "But the posts helped on the ball-screen and helped us defend the three." Which the Ducks began missing and the Dogs consistently recovering. Gordon, struggling to make shots, turned to making plays like a point guard should. "So I tried to get out in transition and create some easy baskets for the other people."
Rhodes, that is, with six-straight points. "Charles was the guy we had to go to because of the way they were guarding him," Stansbury said. Quick as that Oregon's coverage was stretched much thinner. Hansbrough turned a loose ball into a layup, and at 13:10 Stewart got his first long ball to fall. He hit another at 10:51 that suddenly had the Bulldogs right behind 51-48 and Oregon calling for a talk. That just delayed State going in front as Stewart struck again, then Rhodes dunked for a 53-52 lead at 9:40. A minute later both Catron and Leunen had their fourth personals and Rhodes was making free throws for a three-point MSU margin.
Oregon would lead briefly again, 58-57 on free throws by Malik Hairston and Taylor. But backup center Brian Johnson, filling in for Varnado sidelined by four fouls, boarded a Gordon miss and scored it. Fouls began felling Ducks, and sending Rhodes to the stripe for point after point and a 63-58 scoreboard at four minutes. Focus on the big Dog left Stewart open on the right wing for his fourth and final trey at 3:01 for a 66-60 cushion that let State go guard the arc full-time and force Oregon to take, and not make, most of their two-pointers. Gordon and Hansbrough iced the outcome with free throws, though Porter threw in a stats-only trey at 13 seconds that probably stung more than another miss.
"The first 12 minutes they won the war playing small and shooting the three-pointer," Stansbury said. "The second half we for sure won the war. We took advantag of them on the inside, and they were 2-for-21."
Hairston finished with a Duck-best 22 points and three treys, Porter had four longballs and 18 points, and Leunen 13 in his last college game. State's Varnado joined the double-digit club with 11 points, shooting 5-of-7 from the floor himself. And while Gordon was held to eight points, he did get 11 rebounds as State won the board-battle 40 to 36.
So Rhodes will get to play another NCAA game. He didn't start either of the 2005 Charlotte Regional contests, on a senior-dominated club, but all the same claimed the three-year-old memories were valuable experience when State was staring at elimination. "It helped me a lot, I was just telling these guys all throughout the game, it's no tomorrow. I gave them encouragement because, you know, I've been here before. I didn't play a lot! But I know the feeling. I had to let these guys know what the NCAA is all about."
Now it's all about beating the mighty Tigers, a consensus favorite to run through this Regional to the Final Four. Few in Little Rock or elsewhere will give Mississippi State much chance in Sunday's matchup. And that's just fine with the Bulldogs, who have no shame in playing underdogs. "They're one of the top teams in the country so it gives us a little more motivation," Gordon said. "We're going to try to play solid defense, rebound the ball, and get an upset."
Nor will it upset Rhodes a bit to surprise—even offend—the experts Sunday. "Next time I lose, that's it for me. Every day I'm out there I'm going to give it my all because I'm trying to keep playing. Keep dancing."