Bulldogs Bounce Back For 79-60 Win Over Jags

To Coach Rick Stansbury the situation was clear. "When you get beat sometimes you make adjustments; when you get embarrassed you make changes. We made wholesale changes." Those changes produced an entirely fresh approach and completely different result as Mississippi State whipped visiting South Alabama 79-60 Saturday night.

Mississippi State improved to 7-3, in the process avenging a close loss in Mobile last December. South Alabama left 6-4.

When Stansbury spoke of embarrassment he wasn't exaggerating, considering how poorly his club had played in a Wednesday loss to Charlotte. "As you could tell I wasn't very pleased with what went on," he said. So the next afternoon the coach changed the lineup—inserting guard Phil Turner for forward Kodi Augustus—and, he said, "We changed how we did things. I thought our kids responded positively."

Turner certainly did, scoring a season-best ten point in his first start of the sophomore campaign. He also had four assists, against no turnovers, and a couple of steals. And while giving away size influenced play on the defensive end, Turner's activity on offense more than offset other considerations.

"It opened up al lot of things," Stansbury said of going with a four-guard-types lineup. "No question we had to get some energy and emotion on the floor. And he created a lot of plays for other people." Most obviously for center Jarvis Varnado, who scored a game-best 21 points on nine-of-11 shooting. When the Jaguars swarmed Varnado inside, the ball came back out to wingman Ravern Johnson for open and accurate shooting and 12 more markers.

Losing his spot on the tipoff team seemed to do no harm to Augustus, either, as he got seven points off the bench to lead all backups.

Stansbury admitted making such shifts, with such short time to practice them, and against an opponent of USA's ability, was risky. Still he saw it as a necessary gamble and the results certainly paid off, even though the Bulldogs ended up losing on the backboards 39-33.

"They had bad matchups, too," Stansbury said. "But they put a four-guy on Phil whether in man or zone, which opens up that post. We spread things out, went totally different than we'd been playing just to create a different mindset and energy level on this team. And Jarvis was a beneficiary of the way we played."

South Alabama got 19 points from forward Brandon Davis, but he had to take 19 shots (seven made) to get them and was rejected several times by Varnado, who blocked six shots in all. Guard Dominic Tilford was the only other Jag in double-digits with 11 points.

Stansbury's chief issue in State's midweek loss was lack of ‘toughness' on the court at each end. Varnado showed immediately this was going to be a whole ‘nother matter, taking it right at the Jag basket for a foul and free throw. Then he batted a pass upcourt where he could retrieve and dunk; and took the return-pass from Turner for another slam, 5-0 lead, and USA timeout. And after the Jaguars got their first point, on a pullup-trey by Tilford, Varnado came right back with a rebound jam.

South Alabama kept in striking distance though, hitting a couple of outside jumpers and sliding a few layups around Varnado's long arm. Then came an extended stretch where neither side could so much right offensively, and not because the defense was so sterling either. Most of the turnovers were self-inflicted, as were missed USA free shots that kept State just in front. The visitors also had two field-shots to tie, failing on each.

Augustus, held out for the first ‘quarter' of action, made his substitution presence known immediately with a short jumper and added a couple of foul shots for a 18-13 lead. And he showed his own upgraded intensity by missing two shots but chasing the carom each time and scoring on a third try. Stansbury even let him shoot when the USA bench drew a technical after an aggressive Varnado swat. Augustus made one on the chances.

Johnson stepped to the fore—rather, beyond the arc—and hammered home a trio of long treys that kept the Bulldogs in front, even as the Jaguars found their own touch inside and out and cut a 29-22 deficit to a bucket on a Tilford longball. Varnado had to reject Brandon Davis yet again for State to take a 32-29 lead into the locker room.

Yet just a couple of minutes into the new half the Bulldogs got the real test, as forward Ronald Douglas and Davis combined for six points and a 38-37 Jaguar lead, their first of the night. And last.

Because PG Dee Bost beat the defense for a go-ahead layup at 17:22, sparking what turned into a 15-0 Bulldog burst. Varnado stuffed another rebound and Turner added four free throws—including two off a second USA bench technical. For good measure he chucked in a jumper, while USA was missing forced trey-tries. When Turner laid one in at 13:54 the Bulldogs had blown it open 52-38.

The margin stayed in double-digits the rest of the way, peaking at 21 points when reserve Taylor Luczak flipped it in the bucket. Fifteen Dogs in all got at least 30 seconds of work, with only still-gimpy forward Brian Johnson not getting on the court.

On who did get on the court, literally, too much was junior G Barry Stewart, twice crushed on layup attempts by Douglas. The second time Stewart excused himself with a hurting left wrist, which was a bad sign for his coach. "We want to get it x-rayed. For him to take himself out of a game, it probably doesn't look good." Stewart had four points in 18 game-minutes.

South Alabama Coach Ronnie Arrow did not talk to media. Aide Michael Floyd spoke for his boss. "Coming into the game we were averaging about 17 assists. To have one assist for an entire game is going to make it difficult to win a game like that." The Jaguars had 15 turnovers against that one scoring pass, and shot 36% from the floor compared to 54% for State.

"I'm proud our kids bounced back from Wednesday night's effort," Stansbury said. As to whether this winning lineup will stick—allowing obviously for Stewart's injury—the coach could only offer "Until something goes wrong. Then we'll adjust, or we'll change. We've got to get some other guys better in this change."

A lot better considering that State has to prepare for a tougher matchup, and a road game, in the coming days. The Bulldogs are playing at Cincinnati this Thursday evening (5:30ct) as part of the SEC/Big East Challenge. The game will be televised nationally on ESPN2.


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