"Jarvis was a big presence inside," Johnson said. "He made them double-team him and kicked it out to me to knock the open shot down." Mississippi State, returning to play after a week off here in fall final exams, improved to 6-2 while the Hornets left 1-5. The win improved MSU's all-time mark against squads from the Southwestern Athletic Conference to 16-2.
Still Alabama State made the home team work harder than most anticipated. Coach Rick Stansbury warned his club that the veteran Hornet club wasn't just making this trip for the December fun of it, but the Dogs had to get the wake-up call in-person.
"For the first time all year we didn't play with the sharpness mentally," said Stansbury. "Take nothing away from Alabama State, they hit us in the mouth a couple of times."
And the Hornets did have some sluggers in the lineup, starting with 7-1, 265-pound center Chief Kickingstallionsims, along with a couple of guards willing to pull the perimeter trigger at any point. Just enough such shots would fall to keep the edge on this afternoon.
Ultimately, while giving away inches and pounds to his counterpart, Varnado stood taller. He not only scored career-best points but topped his previous marks for baskets (10) and shots (13), which almost obscured the game-bests of nine rebounds and eight blocked shots. Almost. Because his coach harped on defense and rebounding at halftime and it showed the second period.
"Sims did a pretty good job on me in the first half," Varnado said. "I had to come out and change my mentality, how I approached it on the defensive end, and he didn't have but two baskets the second half. Push him off the block, and keep myself between him and the basket. He had a hard time scoring." Sims finished with a dozen points and only five rebounds, though lack of endurance factored in with just 23 minutes of court-time.
While firing from longer ranges Johnson was just about as efficient as Varnado, going 7-of-10 from the floor and 3-of-4 at the arc. The skinny forward even chipped-in with rebounding, getting five boards as State eventually won on the glass 37-29.
"They were giving me open looks, and when you're open you have to knock the shots down. It picked the team's spirits up so we could get a win."
Initially ASU's Chief made his presence felt by blocking a couple of shots, including Varnado's, and muscling for four points and a 6-4 Hornet lead. State had better success with Johnson shooting and scoring twice on longballs and pushed out to a 14-6 advantage at six minutes. Sims also sat down for an early break and Varnado was able to dunk a miss.
It was the backup Bulldogs who gave State the best early chance to break things open. Elgin Bailey drove for one layup inside the ASU zone, then guard Twany Beckham finished consecutive fastbreaks for a 24-12 lead and Hornet timeout. The break likely included discussion of shot selection, as ASUmissed six-straight tries for three before Menji Mundadi made good at 8:06.
That brought State's starters back to the floor, but the Hornets had gained some confidence and attacked the MSU man-set more effectively. Mundadi hit for three again, and Sims overpowered Varnado twice for dunks. When Brandon Brooks floated in a jumper it was Stansbury's turn to stop action with his team tied-up 32-32 at 3:02.
Yet Tramaine Butler was able to bank in a long three and give ASU a one-point lead, before forward Kodi Augustus converted two free shots and State went into the locker room up 38-37. And not overly happy about it, as had ASU been much better than 3-of-13 at the arc the Dogs could have been in real trouble.
In fact Hayles did hit a three to begin the new half for a 40-38 Hornet lead. Augustus evened the count on free throws, only to be power-blocked by Sims the next time down. After Sims rolled in another tying basket, Varnado asserted himself; he tipped in a miss by G Barry Stewart, and stuffed Sims head-up before hitting his own baby-hook. A return-pass to PG Dee Bost in the corner produced a three-pointer.
Bulldog defense toughened up on the perimeter as well as the Hornets misfired, or just lost the handle. Meanwhile Stewart and Varnado combined for nine points in extending the lead to 60-51 by the eight-minute mark. Varnado reached the 20-point plateau for his first time on free throws in this run.
"Chief got the best of Jarvis the first half," said Stansbury. "I challenged him at halftime and Chief got just two baskets the second half."
The Hornets had one last burst in them; or rather Mundadi had two more trey-makes in him, hitting on consecutive trips for a 60-57 difference. Johnson had his own answer from out-top, while inside F Romero Osby attacked for one basket and drew the foul for a couple of free points and 67-57 cushion. The Bulldogs could slow the pace on offense, as well as make the Hornets burn clock on their end with close arc-coverage. When ASU pressed full-court, Johnson made it hurt with an easy lay-in that effectively sealed the home court win.
"I didn't think we were at our best," Varnado admitted, saying the halftime talk was pointed. "The coaches jumped on us and we had to get it going."
Johnson agreed. "We didn't come out at our best and it showed. I guess we turned it up eventually, but we can't do this on real good teams." Bost added ten points with five assists. ASU got 16 points from Hayles and 14 more from both Mundadi and Brooks, but the backcourt was 7-of-23 at the arc overall. And much of MSU's margin came at the foul line, with the Dogs making 19 free throws to just six for the visitors.
"I thought Jarv and Barry stepped up the second half and gave us some leadership from example of energy and toughness you have to play with," Stansbury said. But the coach wants the team to set and follow such examples earlier and most consistently as the schedule toughens up in weeks to come. "Really good teams, it won't be as easy to come back against."
The Bulldogs return to play Wednesday evening hosting Charlotte in a 7:00 contest.