Make that chances. Such as when State, which had sputtered through the first half, got its act together for a eight-point lead at 14:00 of the second period. Or, when free throws by guard Barry Stewart had the Bulldogs up 53-49 with 61 seconds remaining in regulation. Or even when with the scoreboard even at 53-apiece Stewart and Varnado combined for three attempts in the last few ticks that all caught too much iron.
It left Coach Rick Stansbury fuming about all the what-ifs and shoulda-beens. "When you have opportunities to put somebody away, you've go to put somebody away."
Instead the Toreros survived to play an extra five minutes where they indeed took care of business. Two exchanges of baskets into overtime, San Diego's De'Jon Jackson found a seam and exploited it for a layup, foul, and free throw that had the Toreros up 60-57 at 2:47. "They scored a three-point play and we were fighting from behind," Stansbury said. Varnado trimmed one point off the deficit with a free throw, and had a chance to tie roll the wrong way as did guard Phil Turner's tip. Pomare boarded and San Diego called for a talk at 1:11. It was unlikely they wanted Jackson to use up all the shot clock, and maybe a bit more it appeared, before heaving up a wild effort.
But it went in all the same at 46.4 for a 62-58 lead. Stewart managed to draw a foul when trapped in a corner and converted both chances at 31.3 seconds. Jackson was fouled in turn, but he had just a 1-and-1 and missed the front end. State boarded and while Stewart again misfired Varnado was fouled, hard, chasing the rebound. He made one free shot at 9.6 seconds.
The Bulldogs pressured the inbounds, but left Pomare open across midcourt. He got the long pass and rumbled in for the layup and winning points. "That was probably just miss-communication on one of our parts," MSU wingman Ravern Johnson said. "That just cost us the game there." Fouled at two seconds, point guard Dee Bost missed his first free throw and clanked the second intentionally, only to have the rebound go to SD's Rob Jones.
It was a satisfying score for Pomare, who had missed 13 of his previous 16 shots but made the one that mattered most. He finished with 10 point, in the process becoming San Diego's all-time scoring leader, and muscled for a game-best 15 rebounds. Point guard Trumaine Johnson, who missed the first 12 games of the season with a leg injury, led the Toreros with 17 points while Jackson came off the bench for 13 more.
State got 17 points from Stewart, while Bost added 13 and Varnado finished with 10 points and 13 boards. The center also blocked six shots, becoming the fifth SEC player with 300 swats for a career. He has 302 midway of his junior year.
Though the final outcome was settled in overtime, Stansbury saw this one get away in regulation. He pointed to "glaring" turnovers when State led by four in the final minute, as well as some missed free shots down the stretch. "I know they're magnified at that stage of the game, but we just don't have that kind of margin for effort to beat any good team like that."
"I'm just very proud of our group for their effort tonight, coming into a place like this and getting a win, Torero Coach Bill Grier said.
Neither side had much to be proud of in the first half, as both showed the rust from a week's layoff and scored only five points apiece in the first five minutes. In San Diego's case it was somewhat by design, with a patient approach against State's man-defense. "We knew it was going to be a tempo game," Stewart said. "We knew they liked to run through their set and their flex." Yet as the Toreros shot 2-of-9 to open the game, the Bulldogs were only 2-of-10.
San Diego broke the tie as Johnson hit a jumper and then a layup after a Dog turnover. When Chris Lewis went backdoor for an uncontested two it was 15-8 favor of the visitors. Bost, who had hit State's first trey of the night, got the comeback started by throwing in a long one. A Torero turnover became a jumper for Stewart, and at 8:33 sub-guard Twany Beckham drove for the tying layup. It took another minute for Varnado to score his first bucket of the night and put the Dogs in front 17-15.
The Toreros stayed close though and had five chances to regain the lead—and should have been given it on the third as Varnado got away with a goaltend. Finally Jackson made the short banker for a 25-24 San Diego lead at intermission. Thirty seconds after resuming play the Bulldogs were back in front as Ravern Johnson rainbowed an out-top trey. Varnado swatted Pomare at one end and hooked a basket in over his counterpart on the other.
When Johnson got a floater in the lane to drop State led 37-30 and San Diego was calling for time at 15:36. Not until SD's Johnson ran out a layup did the Toreros snap a three-minute bucketless stretch…and Stewart offset that by hitting for three. "I felt like when we got out to that lead I thought we were going to hold it and run up the score," Varnado said. "But that's a well-coached team, they kept their poise and they battled back."
Because an eight-point MSU margin vanished as San Diego ripped off 11 straight points, including consecutive buckets on putbacks as Bulldog rebounding disappeared too. A trey by Matt Dorr and Jackson free throws suddenly had the Toreros up 45-42, and Varnado checking back in to both block and board.
Twice Bost evened the score on free throws, and by 6:29 State's starting five was reassembled on court. Phil Turner missed his try at a trey but Varnado covered the carom for an easy layin and lead, before Turner finished a fastbreak and made it 51-47, forcing another Torero timeout. The break did slow State's offensive momentum, but San Diego couldn't take any advantage at their end and scored nothing from 7:06 until Pomare made free throws at 1:34. So did Johnson at 49.3 seconds, keeping it a two-point difference.
Against full-court pressure Turner passed to the wrong color uniform and San Diego called time at 33.2 to talk it over. Johnson took the shot, missing, but Pomare was on the other side of the goal for an easy second chance basket and 53-53 deadlock at 21.7. "We made two crucial turnovers down the stretch we really shouldn't have," said Johnson. "That really cost us the game, we let it slip away at the end."
Stansbury waited for the ball to cross midcourt before using the timeout at 14.9. Stewart couldn't get driving banker to drop, nor did Varnado on his two follows before the horn. "In overtime we wanted to throw the first punch," said Stewart. "But they got up on us right there and we tried to battle back."
"We had opportunities to put them away in regulation, we didn't do it," Stansbury said. "Give them credit, they made plays." The Toreros made a few more plays, too, with narrow margins in shooting (41% to 39%) and rebounding (40 to 36). And they got the win by making just two three-point goals, in only four such shots.
"For the most part defensively I didn't think we did a bad job," Stansbury said. "We hold them to 53 points in regulation. I just didn't think we were were as effective in that paint as you need to be. Either that, or make some threes." State was 5-of-19 at the arc, though, and after a four-game stretch of his best offense in college Varnado went only 4-of-12. "For the first time I didn't think Jarvis was very effective offensively since going small," Stansbury said. "We didn't get it to him enough, and some of that was Jarvis. He didn't finish against that big body (Pomare) enough."
Nor did the Bulldogs finish December as they wanted. Now they have a few weekdays to figure out some things before playing Houston on Saturday and Western Kentucky next Monday; the final games before league play tips off on January 10 at Arkansas. A loss to underdog San Diego was no way to build momentum, Johnson agreed. "We need to bounce back from this and start back winning."
"We're playing hard," Stewart said. "Effort isn't it. We just have to find ways to win, and we've got to start turning it up soon. We've got two games left before conference play and we have to get these two at home."