Which meant there was a lot more relief than celebration seen from the winning team as they left the floor. That tone followed into the post-game press room. "I think this game was well-needed," senior C Brian Johnson said. "It showed that if we play like that we can easily get beat in the SEC. We found a way to win."
"I didn't think until the last three-and-a-half minutes we started getting some urgency," said Stansbury, now 19-2 in exhibition play. "It's good when you can find a way to dig-in late when you've struggled all night long."
The Bulldogs didn't just dig-in, they burst-out down the stretch outscoring the Stars 17-3 to grab their first lead of the afternoon. Oklahoma City had no answer as their lead leeched away, either. Because while playing a lot of bodies and all sorts of exhibition-game lineups hampered State's cohesion much of the way, it also meant the home varsity was fresher in the late going than a OKC squad with just two men on the bench at any one time.
"It was a good game, unfortunately we didn't finish," said first-year Stars Coach Kevin Morrissey. "We played well and had a chance."
A good chance, with Ellis hitting five treys en route to a game-best 26 points. Center Ricardo De Bern and guard Davell Jackson each added 11 points for OKC. State had no one player to match Ellis' output, but countered with double-digit scoring from five players. C Jarvis Varnado led the list with 12 points, along with 13 rebounds and eight of State's 11 blocked shots.
Varnado had to do most of his damage in the second half, though, which signaled problems the home team had during the opening period. Stansbury admitted that practices all week had been grueling but he did not want to give his players the easy ‘out' of being tired. And the coach certainly questioned their mental preparedness.
"I thought the first two-and-half, three-and-a-half minutes dictated the whole game," Stansbury said. "I don't know if we didn't understand these guys are good, and this is their biggest game of the year. And they have some players that can pay. They jumped on us and I thought from then on we played behind, we weren't sharp, we played without a lot of energy."
The Stars did set something of a tone immediately as Ellis struck for a fast three. Nor was Oklahoma City intimidated by Varnado's presence at first, taking the drive right to the rack and avoiding rejection for layups. For his part Ellis, a former Indiana guard, was money from either wing, his third trey on as many tries making it a 15-5 margin at 15:53.
"He's a great player," Varnado said. "They were just hitting shots." The Star sharpshooter finally cooled and the Bulldogs began chipping away on the strength of their post play on both ends. Varnado figured out the timing to both block and board defensively, while Elgin Bailey and Kodi Augustus combined for a trio of dunks on either breaks or put-backs. When G Barry Stewart stuck a trey OKC was calling for time with their lead down to 25-23. Ellis hit a guarded three to stem the surge, only to see Stewart answer on the other end from longer range.
From their both sides struggled to manufacture much, and the Bulldogs missed on no less than eight attempts to tie it up. The Stars were no better until Davell Jackson used the glass for their first basket in almost five minutes, making it a 31-27 halftime.
Varnado used his favored offensive approach, dunking twice on putbacks with a foul on the second. "I just had to come out with a lot of energy, we were lacking it in the first half and coach told me to bring a lot to the table. So that's what I did." His free shot had the Dogs within 33-32, before the Stars spurted back out with seven fast points including a three-point series for Telo Vinicius. State answered as Stewart hit for three and Ravern Johnson finished with a floater, so when Varnado got a roller it was again a one-point difference. PG Dee Bost had a long shot for the lead that rimmed-awry, while OKC's Ellis was more accurate at the arc.
Ellis added a layup and De Bern dropped a short jumper for a 52-44 lead. If the Stars had been any good at all from the charity stripe they might have taken control midway of the half. As it was they missed more often than not and State stayed in striking distance. Marlon Jones hit a jumper and after a strip-steal Ellis went the distance for a goaltend-basket and 56-46 scoreboard.
OKC offered a reprieve by missing some open shots but the Bulldogs still fell as far behind as 60-48 when De Bern was left alone again. It was Bost sparking the comeback, starting with his open three at 5:28. Brian Johnson lost his man for a driving dunk, then Bost popped for three on a pull-up that had OKC calling for time at 3:57 with the lead slashed to 60-56.
Of course it was Ellis asked to answer and he did, for three. But the Stars were called for palming on their next trip and Morrissey earned a technical during the media timeout. "I was flabbergasted by that call," Morrissey said, "he'd been dribbling that way all game." Stewart was good on both technical chances, which inspired teammates Bost and Varnado to also convert two freebies on consecutive chances to make it a one-point game. And after OKC's Jackson missed a driving chance, Bost kicked-out to Ravern Johnson for a corner-trey at State's first lead all day, 65-63.
"Coach told us we had to get some stops, then go score," said Varnado. "That's what we did."
Ellis tied it on his floater but Varnado escaped downcourt for a snowbird-dunk that had the Stars calling time. The huddle-plan likely wasn't for Jackson to get blocked by Brian Johnson 16 feet from the goal. Now leading and with the ball, State talked it over. Varnado missed his layup and drew no iron, so while the rebound was knocked out of bounds by Stars the Dogs didn't have a lot of shot-clock left. Ravern Johnson clanked his dunk, giving Oklahoma City a last chance at 11.9 ticks.
They did nothing with it, as Jackson had to give up the ball and Ellis, hounded by Stewart and Bost, couldn't get a decent look. His heave was wide of goal, backboard, everything.
Bost and Stewart both had 11 points, and freshman Bost had six assists. Both Johnsons had ten points, Brian getting his off-the-bench as midweek illness cost him the start. He had nine rebounds and a block. Having an old Dog like Johnson as a ‘backup' today actually came in handy in the first half as the starters weren't getting stops on defense.
"Basically we've got some young guys that aren't used to turning around (from practice) and playing," Johnson said. "We came out sluggish. The second squad came in and picked it up a little bit."
While the Bulldogs managed to miss all sorts of tips and taps in each half, just a few of which would have turned things their way earlier and easier, they did inflate the final rebounding margin to 53-38. And this effort Stansbury liked. "Those back-line guys, we'll play against a lot better but they ain't bad," he said.
But getting out-shot 43% to 34% wasn't good, and while the Bulldogs did get their winning surge going on free throws they were still just 9-of-17 for the day. "But I'll take the positives from it," Stansbury said.
While the Bulldogs expect the negatives to be a topic of intense practice interest this week, as Mississippi State prepares to host Centenary next Saturday (time TBA) in the real season opener. Asked what they will take from the game, Varnado was blunt. "Get better," he said. "Just execute our offense, come out with energy, come out ready to play no matter what team it is.