State Opens '09 Slate With Rout Of Cougars

Coach Rick Stansbury didn't enjoy how the 2008 portion of his schedule ended. But if the first outing of the New Year is any indicator, his Bulldogs can make some much better things happen in 2009. "I thought that was probably the most complete two halves offensively and defensively we've put together," Stansbury said after a 82-65 rout of Houston. "I thought our kids came to win."

Mississippi State did play to win at each end of the Humphrey Coliseum court, dominating the visiting Cougars in just about every aspect that mattered. And, with an ease that neither side could have expected. The Bulldogs broke open a tied tilt with a 13-2 run midway of the first half, then really blew the afternoon open with a 15-3 surge to begin the second period and take total control. In the process State (9-5) scored its first win over Houston in six tries (the last previous meeting was in 1983). The Cougars left at 8-3.

Coming five days after an infuriating overtime home loss to San Diego, this win—as well as how it developed--soothed lots of Bulldog concerns. "This is the first game where we all didn't think, we just played and reacted to things," said freshman forward Romero Osby, who came off the bench for 13 points and seven rebounds.

Stansbury saw things from a slightly different perspective, though he agreed in general with Osby's evaluation. Just because the Bulldogs weren't over-thinking things did not mean they played loose. In fact, "I saw an urgency I don't always see in this team," the coach said. Especially on defense, where a Cougar squad used to scoring in bunches struggled to make shots. Not take them, as Houston fired freely; but they only made good on 21-of-76 attempts, or under 28%. And they were just 3-of-18 on three-pointers.

"We couldn't hit the (deleted) Mississippi River from the pier," Houston Coach Tom Penders said. "We're a 45% shooting team for the year, 37% from the arc. I'm not saying State didn't play defense, but we had an awful lot of looks. It could have been a 90-88 game if we'd played our part."

The Bulldogs all played their parts, even if only two starters scored in double-digits. Guard/forward Phil Turner got a season-best 16 points and was 3-of-4 at the arc; while guard Ravern Johnson had a couple of treys too and 14 total points. Yet State didn't need one or two standouts this time around. Not with the bench chipping in for 32 points and 17 rebounds, and even some three-pointers. And, of course, continued defensive efforts.

"We had to come out, execute our plays, and make shots," Ravern Johnson said. "Everybody was psyched for the game because we had to bounce back from the last game. We came out being defensive-minded, and the offense came."

It didn't come often enough for Houston, especially guard Kelvin Lewis who brought a 18.6-point average to the contest. The junior had a miserable afternoon shooting 5-of-20, 0-of-7 at the arc, and failed for the first time this season to make a trey.

The Dogs were much more productive from distance, making 11-of-25 trey-tries. Eight of these came from the starting ‘small' four-guard lineup Stansbury has used the past five games now. And the longball was decisive in setting a first-half tone. "We hit a couple of threes, we built off that energy and just kept shooting," said Johnson.

"Ray making a couple of threes, Stew (guard Barry Stewart) making a coupl of threes; the same threes we've shot a bunch this year," Stansbury said. In previous games too many of them had missed, but the coach did not rein in his gunners. "On this team we have to take those shots. They have total freedom to jump up and take those shots."

And the Bulldog backcourt was taking and making early, scoring on the first three turns with a driving buckets from point guard Dee Bost and longshots by Turner and Stewart in the first 90 seconds. When Stewart struck again it was 11-2 at 17:26.

"They were shooting the three early in possessions," Penders said. "And we hadn't seen that in any of the film we watched. And they were hitting them."

UH forward Qa'Rraan Calhoun finally got his side up to offensive speed first by finishing a fastbreak with a foul and three-point play. Then, from opposite corners, he hit open threes to tie the tally at 15-15. Forward Sean Coleman gave the Cougars their first lead with one free throw at 13:17, as the longballs State had been making went missing for the moment.

A strong putback and foul-shot by Osby at 13:00 to stem Houston's momentum. And after a series of ties Johnson stuck an open three from out top as State went back in front and stayed there. Not only that, but ran off ten-straight points with Bost and Johnson hitting threes to give the Bulldogs a 33-22 advantage by 6:02. The stretch came with a scare, though, as on a rebound scramble center Jarvis Varnado went down at 7:10 and was helped to the training room where he had a sprained right ankle re-taped.

"I got up in the air and came down on Ro," Varnado explained. He would return before intermission, then play a few second-half minutes. In the meantime Osby and backup posts Brian Johnson and Elgin Bailey held their own on the boards. And there were plenty of opportunities because Houston went 3-of-18 in a eight-minute span. With Osby hitting both a three-pointer and a putback the Bulldogs had a 43-31 lead in the locker room.

If the Cougars were cold in the first half, they were completely frigid after intermission. In the first nine minutes of the second period they missed 15 out of 16 shots, with only a threefer by guard Desmond Wade interrupting the drought. Johnson floated in a short jumper, then finished a break to get State re-started scoring, and Osby did the honors in pushing the margin to twenty points with a layup and another three-ball when left unguarded.

"I felt real comfortable. Coach has been really getting on me about rebounding and having that mindset really got my offense going. I played more relaxed and didn't think too much, I was just playing."

For that matter all the Bulldogs could do pretty much as they pleased on offense, with guard Riley Benock throwing in three and Bailey dunking at 11:28 for a 63-35 scoreboard. From there it was merely a matter of how large the differential could grow---State's largest lead was 71-45 at 5:15---as well as what reserves would see mop-up action. And, how often the officials would delay conclusion with now-meaningless whistles. Though crew chief Mike Thibodeaux did wave off the last eight-tenths of a tick when the clock stopped after a loose rebound.

State shot 46% for the affair, and were nearly as efficient at the arc (44%) as overall. Bost had a quiet nine points, though his early penetration moves did much to shake up Houston's defensive approach, but added eight assists to his season total. Limited by the ankle to just 16 minutes Varnado managed only four points, but had eight rebounds and three blocks. And while the Bulldogs lost the overall rebounding battle 53 to 46, that had to be qualified by the sheer number of missed Houston shots and second-chances…which the Cougars also failed to cash in most of the time.

Lewis did manage 16 points, six from the foul line, to lead the Cougars. Calhoun added 15 points, though only four of that came after halftime, and Coleman 11.

As happy as he was to see his team hitting from outside, Stansbury was more satisfied with the defensive effort against a quality opponent. And, with how the Bulldogs responded to the San Diego setback with a best-yet contest.

"We're not good enough to not win the games you've got in your grasp," he said. "There's a small margin for error on this team. We've got to learn to play like it's a one-point game, every possession. Because we know we're not going to consistently have games (shooting) like that."

Or, maybe they will, Osby hopes. "Sometimes in a game we seem real stiff, but today we looked more like ourselves. Because we're a running team. Today was the first time we really capitalized on it."

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