"They're moving on to the Sweet 16, I'm fixing to get on a plane and go back to Starkville," Rhodes said. "It really hasn't sunk in yet."
Then again if Memphis, the least-reliable free throwing squad still playing, hadn't sunk just enough charity chances down the stretch, they might not still be playing. State stormed back from a 75-65 deficit at 0:24 to make it a two-point cliffhanger at three seconds. Tiger guard Charles Douglas-Roberts made one of two freebies, though given the remaining time State was going to have to throw up a long try anyway.
Gordon, already the game-high scorer, couldn't create a really good opportunity at adding to his 21 points. "They trapped me and dribbled off my leg a little and didn't get a good shot off." Thus Mississippi State's season ended at 23-11, and the fifth NCAA appearance in Coach Rick Stansbury's ten-year tenure again fell short of the Sweet 16. Which was not on his mind.
"Every team that plays except one is going to have the feeling we have," said Stansbury. "We said make sure we leave this floor with no regrets, it's obvious this team fought with their hearts. As a team that's all you can ask."
All, that is, except in the lone area that left players and coach alike frustrated. State shot the ball as well as the Tigers, both inside and out. It was what happened too often on the mutual misses that decided the outcome. "You can break down stats, chop up things, look for reasons here and there, but there is one thing I can point to," Stansbury said. "It was offensive rebounds." Where the Tigers gained possession of 19 of their own misses, leading to second shots and 22 second-chance points. "And you lose by three, it's not hard to figure it out."
"They beat us on the backboards," said Rhodes. "Myself included, we gave up a lot of rebounds." Memphis ended with a total margin of 45 to 37. A dozen of those rebounds were gathered by forward Joey Dorsey to go with his 13 points and six blocked shots before he fouled out. "I guess Joey dreamed about me last night," Rhodes said. "He averaged seven points and came out with a different mindset, give all the credit to him."
Douglas-Roberts and Derrick Rose each had 17 Tiger points, though it was the dozen points by Willie Kemp—all on treys—that proved in how the mid-game played out. Memphis, not particularly potent at the arc this year, hit just enough longballs to take State out of the first-half zone defense and let Dorsey & Co. play more one-on-one in the second period.
Gordon had 11 rebounds, all defensive, to go with his points and hit four threes. Rhodes got his tenth double-double of the senior season with 14 points and 10 rebounds, while guard Ben Hansbrough threw in three longballs and laid in enough other buckets for 19 points. Center Jarvis Varnado added 11 points and blocked five shots, which tied him for the SEC season record of 157 set by Shaquille O'Neal in 1992.
All of which looked good on the stat sheet. For Stansbury what mattered were the numbers on the scoreboard. "The only way you feel different is make another play and win the game. But Memphis isn't 35-1 without being an exceptional team."
In almost every way, save of course their 15-of-32 day at the free throw line. The Tigers were the only team this season able to not just match MSU in athleticism and physical play, but do it a bit better at all positions. And for forty minutes, because this was a grind-it-out game from tip (botched the first time) to horn. In fact for the first eight minutes there were about as many blocked shots as made baskets for each side.
Stansbury had planned all along on a zone defense, and it certainly cramped the Tigers' style on first shots. Second chances did let them creep out front until State began sinking longballs, by Hansbrough and sub-guard Ravern Johnson for a 13-11 lead at ten minutes.
For their part the Tigers missed six of the first seven attempts at the arc. Then Kemp was sent in and he had the range, hitting for a trio of treys before Hansbrough struck again to keep the Dogs within 27-25. Which is where the game changed as Memphis got on a real run at last. Roberts dunked on the break, Dorsey scored a board, and Doneal Mack hit for three as Memphis took a 36-27 lead into the locker room.
Looking back I wish we'd come out in man," said Stansbury of the four-minute stretch. "They brought their best two shooter in, I wish we'd gone man in that possession. But we had the pace of the game just where we wanted. They jumped up and made some huge shots."
Stansbury did change to man for the whole new half. It made little difference at first as Dorsey dunked and Roberts ran out a break for a 40-27 bulge. But, "If we were going to lose we were going to lose doing what we've been doing all year, playing man-to-man." And soon personal Dog defense was taking a toll on Tigers as they weren't getting good looks as often. Meanwhile State's Varnado began the comeback with a three-point play and drawing fouls for four more free throws. Dorsey and Dozier were starting to pick up personals, too, which Rhodes took advantage of by getting one-on-one for consecutive baskets.
It was Varnado converting another three-point situation, of Dorsey's fourth foul, that brought State all the way back to a 52-52 tie. And had the Dogs come up with a loose rebound they would have had a shot for the lead. But it was ruled to have rolled off Gordon out of bounds. And with MSU zoning the inbounds Dozier had no problem scoring against Varnado who got his 4th foul. "They threw the ball in before we were ready for it," admitted Stansbury. The free throw missed but Memphis recovered that offensive rebound…then another, before Dozier scored the third-chance.
At four minutes Rose rattled in a pullup for a 68-59 lead that had the Tigers feeling more comfortable. Or at least until Hansbrough hit free throws, fouling-out Dozier in the process, and drove for a layup that had Memphis calling time. They probably didn't draw up a missed three by Shawn Taggart, though, and Hansbrough caught their post-defense flat footed with another layup and 69-65 score.
Memphis would not score another basket…nor need to as it turned out. But making just seven of their last 13 free pitches did leave State a slender chance. Two Rhodes buckets around a Gordon three had the deficit down to three, then Gordon cut it to 76-74 on his end-to-end dash at three ticks. Which was as close as MSU could come to the Sweet 16 this year.
"We were going to lengthen the game," Stansbury said. "That worked, they missed enough free throws and gave us opportunities. And they were a little afraid to foul, we took twos instead of throwing up threes in that stretch. It worked well enough we had a last shot to tie the game up, that's all you can ask." Other than for the shot to go, of course.
Or getting to some of those rebounds in the first half, or manning-up when the Tigers went with their gunners before intermission, or…or any of all the things coaches and teams look at after a loss. Particularly one that ended the post-season just as the Bulldogs were getting in position for a real tournament run. Now they have returned to campus, to finish out the spring semester and get started on 2008-09. Junior Gordon has a few months to decide if he'll be part of the package. "I'm not sure yet. I'm going to look into it, see how everything goes, then make my decision."
For Rhodes there's no option but to start looking for work. He'll attend the spring NBA camp in Portsmouth, Va., and try to catch the right eyes to improve his summer draft stock. But a part of him will stay in Humphrey Coliseum forever. "Ending in the NCAAs I have to feel honored about that and the group of guys I played with," Rhodes said.
"I sum it up by having a great career, being a fan favorite, loving Starkville. It's been a great ride, I had so much fun with these guys and the fans and the reporters. It's going to be something I can tell my kids."