"I think that's the best we've played all year," said wingman Ravern Johnson, who certainly played his best all year—or for his young college career—with a game-high 26 points. "Everybody contributed, the bench contributed, we played good defense."
"I thought our team again had great approach," Stansbury said. "Again, we make shots. And when you make shots the world goes around."
State's shooting certainly ran rings around the helpless Hilltoppers, who had no real chance after watching an early longball barrage leave them trailing and flailing. The Bulldogs were so dominant that they led by 22 points at halftime…and center Jarvis Varnado had yet to put anything in the bucket. The season scoring-leader would net only six points all evening. Of course post points were not a priority as Mississippi State made a fine living from the perimeter, making good on a startling 14 of their 22 trey-tries. The last longball came courtesy of walk-on guard Christopher Gay who connected at 51.9 seconds.
Western Kentucky wasn't completely surprised, after scouting State's 11-of-25 outside effort in a Saturday win over Houston. "They didn't catch us off-guard," Hilltopper guard Sergio Kerusch said. "They were just hot."
Sophomore Johnson had the hottest hand, sinking six of his seven perimeter pops to re-set the program mark with 85.7% accuracy. "I came out and hit my first shot, so I felt comfortable and guys kept giving me the ball and I kept knocking down big shots for us." He was 9-of-10 on all shots. Johnson didn't even make an attempt the last seven minutes, which kept the soph from matching the mark of eight made-treys.
Guard Barry Stewart, who had been struggling much of this junior season, heated things up himself with 4-of-6 marksmanship at the arc and 18 points. That was the same total as point guard Dee Bost who knocked out a pair of threes and was 6-of-9 overall, scoring more often on aggressive attacks of the bucket. "It's a lot easier, especially when Ravern and Barry are hitting shots like they did. It makes it a lot easier for our offense."
"We had a lot of energy tonight and everything was clicking for us offensive and defensively," said Stewart. Defense was sound enough, the final 41% shot by WKU notwithstanding as many of those buckets came long after the outcome was clear.
"Western Kentucky has a very good team, we probably caught them on one of those nights when they weren't at their best," said Stansbury. The ‘Toppers did get 19 points from forward Jeremy Evans, 18 by guard A.J. Slaughter—most of that in the second half—and 13 more from forweard Steffphon Pettigrew.
Then again WKU would likely have had to be better than their usual best to hang with a State squad that seemingly couldn't misfire from the field, connecting on 66% of all attempts. The Bulldogs were even almost perfect at the foul line, 11 of 12. Stansbury said the ‘Toppers played a smallish lineup of their own, if not one quite as short as State's four-guard set started for the sixth-straight game. This avoided any real physical mis-matchups for the Dogs at either end.
"And when you make shots and can score it gives you so much confidence," said Stansbury. "But I thought we were about as good as you can be defensively. At halftime we'd only given up 25 points, that's a huge stat; particularly against a team that can really score."
No one would have guessed two minutes in how things would develop, as the squads were a combined 1-of-8 initially. But soon every perimeter Dog warmed up, beginning with Johnson's four-straight points. Then it was Stewart's turn to stick a trey and a jumper on the move. Bost followed suit in his fashion with free throws off his steal and another driving layup.
It was Johnson's draining consecutive State treys from the left side, followed by a Riley Benock layup at 10:52, that broke the half open and made Western not wait for the media timeout. Their break didn't help much as Benock got in on the outside act by sinking a long three that capped a 15-0 Bulldog tear; a stretch in which the Hilltoppers missed all their eight shots whatever the distance. And even when guard Orlando Mendez-Valdez got a jumper to drop, State kept bombing away with Stewart, Bost, and Johnson all nailing treys for a 35-13 advantage at 6:47.
"We just kept shooting and they kept going!" Stewart said. "Sometimes the ball falls like that." At one point the Bulldogs were 8-of-10 at the arc, compared to 7-of-10 on the closer attempts. Johnson made a ridiculous turnaround on the baseline for his 20th point of the half, and a Bost drive made it 47-25 at intermission. Hot as the Dogs were, it was surprising Bost's halfcourt heave at the horn didn't drop.
Shut out for a half while teammates shot at will, Varnado caught the ball often to open the second period and scored six quick points for a 53-25 lead. "We made a conscious effort to get it to him," Stansbury said. "We can't lose Jarvis." That was all the offense Varnado managed, though he did nab a team-best 10 rebounds.
The margin was so comfortable that even when WKU's Slaughter ripped off a trio of consecutive treys—more than his whole team had the first half--and the Toppers cut the deficit under 20 points State didn't bother wasting a timeout. A good calls as the Dogs scored the next seven markers with yet another trey from Johnson.
"Ravern was special," Stansbury said. "Barry made shots and it gets contagious. For about 30 minutes we were pretty good tonight."
The coach was less content when the Hilltoppers mustered a three-point play by Evans, then another layup off a State turnover cut the lead to 15 points. He hustled Bost back onto the floor, and the point guard immediately got the ball to Stewart for an open threefer. And when WKU dropped off Bost in the corner he went ahead and fired, good, for a 72-51 scoreboard.
Johnson hit his last longball at 7:47, playing five more minutes with no more shots of any sort. "I didn't want to mess up the flow of the game, and let the team do offensive plays and get used to playing with each other," he said. And while the starting lineup was still around as late as 2:47 they became lax in attention to details, allowing the Toppers to take and make some shots. Including a rebound dunk off a carom that clearly hit the top of the backboard, but the officials didn't deem worth stopping play for. State's final 28-point margin was the largest of the evening.
Coming so soon after beating a good Houston club, this win boosted Bulldog hopes that their December struggles are behind…just in time for Southeastern Conference play to begin. And Bost figures this victory could count for a lot come March, too. "It's a great quality win if we're going to get to the NCAA tournament. They made it to the Sweet 16 last year, so that's a great win for us."
But for now it would be a greater accomplishment if Mississippi State can get the league schedule started right. The Bulldogs have the rest of this week to prepare for a Saturday contest at Arkansas, their first true road game since December 18. So Stansbury won't be letting his players sit on their recent successes.
"We've got to take another step and grow up and find a way to do things on the road you don't get at home."