And won it in convincing style. Mississippi State out-shot, out-rebounded, out-blocked, out-just-about everything that mattered, just as the Legends Classic organizers hoped. The Bulldogs broke 100 points for the first time since the last tournament-type event in The Hump, the 2007 NIT romp over Bradley, though the outcome was apparent long before then. State took control so easily and early that reserve forward Brandon Bolen got into the game with 1:11 left…in the first half. And fittingly it would be Bolen who did the triple-digit honors over a half-later.
Mississippi State will stay in The Hump this weekend hosting Fairleigh Dickinson in a second-round match at 6:00. State is one of four squads contracted berths in the Classic semis and finals next weekend. Yet even with tickets to Newark already booked, the Bulldogs put in a first-class performance, often making a Lions team ranked a pre-season 15th in Division II appear third-rate.
"Every game is a big game," explained G Barry Stewart. "Our biggest game is the next game so we had to come out and bring that attitude to it."
The biggest game came from C Jarvis Varnado, who posted his eighth career double-double with 16 points and 14 rebounds…13 of those on the defensive glass. The junior also blocked seven shots, leaving him two shy of the program record set in three seasons as well by Erick Dampier (249, 1994-96).
Not that Varnado had a favorite stat this night. "I enjoyed the win. We came out and played hard."
Stansbury called that the "biggest thing" in the game for him. "I thought once we got going, particularly the second half, our kids played with great effort," he said. Not that it took long for the Bulldogs to get going. "Defensively the first half we gave up 17 points in the first 16-and-a-half minutes," Stansbury said.
With his 211th career win, Stansbury matched Don Devoe (Tennessee, Florida) for the 18th-most victories by a SEC coach.
Mississippi State maximized their inside advantages to build a 10-5 lead, with six points from Varnado and a Kodi Augustus layup. Varnado also swatted a pair of shots at the expense of 300-pound North Alabama center Thomas Fraise, who soon learned to use his bulk and create some room. His tough buckets kept UNA close enough for MSU discomfort, and on consecutive trips the Lions missed treys that would have tied it up.
"They (Fraise and forward Doug Hunter) were big, heavy loads," Varnado said. "I just tried to wait until they left the floor and go get it, but they were leaning on me and making it hard for me to get off the floor." But the Lion loads also drew fouls with this approach. The Bulldogs were able to make use of frequent early trips to the free throw line and stay in front as the second-squad took their turn at 14:01.
A steal and layup by G Riley Benock had State in front 19-10, and he added an open corner-three after the next media break. Backup PF Romero Osby also made his presence known inside and out, powering for a turnaround basket then striking from out top for three points and a 27-12 margin that had UNO calling time at 10:02.
"They really got after it," UNA Coach Bobby Champagne said. "Their pressure bothered us, I thought that was a big part of it. They were able to get a lead and extend it because of their pressure."
But C Elgin Bailey and Osby combined for four more points before the starters returned at the nine-minute mark. "It's more like we have a point to prove," said second-unit G Phil Turner. "Because we know the minutes might not be there the next game and we value the time we're out there!" Spurred by these alternates' examples, Stewart stuck consecutive three-pointers to cap a 17-0 Bulldog blowout. It took a blocked shot from Varnado ending up in Lion guard Gay's hands for a trey to slow the onslaught. But not stop it as just in case UNA had any comeback ideas Stewart and Ravern Johnson hammered home more long shots for a 42-17 difference.
State even put the #2 group back on court for the remaining four minutes of the half, though they weren't quite as efficient this time and the Lions trimmed the deficit to only 48-30 at intermission. "That was the only negative thing I took out of the first half," Stansbury. But in the locker room his first unit lost some edge, too, as UNA opened the last half with six quick points, four by Redden.
Stansbury stopped play for a brief, but intense, chat. "We didn't have our heads going, that's what he said," reported Turner. "So we turned it on and tried to stay consistent."
His team responded with treys from Johnson and Bost, around a Varnado rejection of Fraise, that put the game back in proper perspective. A reverse-layup by Stewart had the margin back out to 59-36 at the next break in play.
"We got our heads right and finished the job," Varnado said.
It was another Stewart stick from the arc that stretched the lead to an even thirty points, with a high difference of 100-58. The only question had been when the Bulldogs would reach triple-digits and Bolen had the opportunity, scoring uncontested off Osby's bounce-feed at 44 seconds.
Stewart matched his bigger classmate's point total with 16, hitting a trio of treys. Off the bench Osby played like a starter with 15 points, as well as four assists. Bailey started slow on offense but ended up with ten points andfive points, along with three of State's 13 total blocks. Rookie guard Bost reached double-digits in assists with ten.
Fraise led all scorers with 17 points but was 7-of-22 shooting for them, including five attempts at the arc. Redden added 16 points and Kenny Johnson 10. The Lions were savaged on the backboards 51-27, and shot just 32% overall while the Bulldogs were good 58% of the time, including 11-of-25 accuracy at the arc.
Of the 13 Dogs who saw action 11 scored at least one basket, and while reserves contributed to the point total the second unit did combine for 35 markers. Stansbury likes giving the backups this much early-schedule seasoning. "We're playing a lot of people and getting a lot of experience doing that." But the current platoon-system will likely end by SEC season, if not sooner as the coaching staff figures out the best first-five group and specific position rotations.
"We'll take the pieces eventually and see what works best," Stansbury said. "Right now we're getting a lot of guys a lot of playing time. The positive thing on this team is it creates great competition, we have great depth, and that takes a toll on people."
Then again the November schedule might take a toll on a still-young State squad. After Saturday's second-round game the Bulldogs leave at 8:00 the next morning for Olean, N.Y. and a Tuesday game at St. Bonaventure—which is not part of the Legends Classis. That event resumes in Newark a week from Friday as State faces Washington State in the semifinals, then either Pittsburgh or Texas Tech on Saturday. The Bulldogs will have played seven times in two weeks, not counting the exhibition contests.