To Coach Rick Stansbury there's no mystery to Varnado's upgraded production, given the context of a four-guard, one big Dog lineup. "He's much easier to get the ball to right now!" the Bulldog coach said, somewhat seriously. Besides, "His whole game gives him confidence. He's really benefited from us playing small, and look at those stats in the last three games." A stretch in which Varnado has scored 21, 24, and now 24 more points, on combined 27-of-33 shooting. "That's a pretty good percentage right there," Stansbury said.
"He's stepping up and being the team leader we need," said guard Ravern Johnson. "He's being an offensive presence and a defensive presence." Varnado had six blocked shots and six rebounds to round out his evening.
For that matter the whole State squad shot a pretty good percentage, 45.5%, from the floor. But they were even better at the stripe, 29-of-38, and that percentage was diluted only by some late misses that made the waning minutes a bit more interesting than necessary. Guard Barry Stewart added a dozen points for State with Ravern Johnson and guard Phil Tuner adding 11 each.
Mississippi State goes into their Christmas break 8-4, while Nicholls State went home 6-5. It was State's ninth consecutive success in Jackson, since 1985; and the seventh of Stansbury's tenure in this venue…as well as the toughest. "This is one of those games you're glad to get the W and move on," he said, comparing playing the Colonels to a visit to the dentist.
"They're a very methodical team and very hard to guard," Stansbury said. Especially when a couple of Colonels finally found the range outside. A late barrage gave forward Anatoly Bose enough treys to collect 20 points, while forward Ryan Bathie added 18 and guard Justin Payne 11 more. All three got hot in the final quarter of play as Nicholls cut a 21-point deficit all the way down to five in the last minute, before the Bulldogs knocked down sufficient charity chances to prevent a complete comeback.
"Their style makes them a very difficult team to defend," Stansbury said. "To our team's credit we found a way to really separate ourselves, we got a big lead and changed defenses enough that it kept them off-balance." State did play mostly zone defense, particularly in the first half, due to having to run a smaller lineup. Yet Stansbury thought at times the Dogs did well when they tried manning-up; though in neither set did State rebound as well as needed, especially when Nicholls State missed shots. Over half of the Colonels' 33 total boards came on offensive rebounds, which somewhat offset their poorer shooting.
The real challenge to State was not getting caught napping by a patient Nicholls approach to offense against the zone. There the Dogs did well early, shutting off the back-door cuts NSU thrives on and forcing longer shots that mostly missed in the opening half. And the officials generally let both sides play in the period which meant a fast clock; it was 13:31 before the first media timeout, past the point a second should have come. Nicholls found out quickly Varnado wasn't to be challenged as he blocked three shots in as many minutes. For that matter he set the tone at each end, scoring six of MSU's first eight points. "I knew going in they didn't have a big shot blocker, so I had to just slow down and make my shots." But with Bathie hitting from either corner the Colonels led until Stewart evened it at 10-10 on free throws.
As State began subbing, the Dogs also shifted into man-defense and Nicholls suddenly could find few shots and make none. They were held scoreless for almost five minutes by the backups, who didn't do a lot of scoring themselves. But an inbounds turnover and tripping foul produced a technical on NSU for one made free throw; and in his first action of the season Brian Johnson hit another freebie. In fact State scored eight-straight points from the stripe, before guard Riley Benock spotted-up in transition and made good from the left wing for a 19-12 lead at the six-minute mark.
The Dogs went back zone as more starters rotated back in, and both Bose and Chris Iles took advantage by sticking open treys after repeated passes around the perimeter. Still State more than kept pace and used a late burst to stretch the lead. Stewart stuck a three, and Ravern Johnson—0 of 4 to that point—went acrobatic on consecutive trips for highlight buckets and a 34-22 intermission margin.
A three by NSU's Fred Hunter cut the deficit under ten points, briefly. Stewart took care of that with his own trey, and Varnado overpowered the 6-6 Bathie twice. When Ravern Johnson hit for three more it was a twenty-point differential, and the lead peaked at 21 as Varnado attacked for a dunk and 53-32 scoreboard.
"The first half we were just getting a feel of it, seeing everything they had to do," Ravern Johnson said. "The second half we knew what they were doing."
Things weren't entirely under control just yet. Because Payne was left unguarded far out top and twice hit from at least 23 feet. State lost rhythm on offense and Nicholls kept creeping back until an Iles jumper made it 61-51 at 6:24. During a deadball Stewart subbed back in and immediately drove for a pull-up jumper at 5:50 that dropped as he was fouled. The free throw completed a three-point play that altered the momentum briefly.
But not completely because the Colonels weren't finished. "They went to that small lineup, they made some threes and we missed some one-and-ones that let them back in the game," Stansbury said. Nicholls hung around a ten-point difference for a couple more minutes, then worked Bose open for three-pointers from each corner to make it 68-62. But it was also Bose gambling on a steal and fouling, putting Johnson on the stripe for two makes. And still it wasn't secure because Bathie slipped in for a tip and 71-66 score, and a quick foul.
Bost only made one chance but Bose missed this time. From there it was a MSU-matter of getting enough free shots to roll right and secure the victory. A late-arriving crowd totaled 3,421 on the cold night, less than half the arena's capacity but still a reasonable turnout to Stansbury who wants to continue taking at least one campus game to the capitol city during the University's holiday break.
"I like the opportunity to take a team out to this part of the state, ad this is our largest alumni area in the state. It gives an opportunity to identify your team. I thought considering all the circumstances and timing of it, some people showed up. Naturally we want to keep getting support and we've got promote it down here. But it's good for our team and good for our University."
The Bulldogs will be off until Dec. 30 when they host San Diego in a 8:00 campus game.